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Providence Vol. Fire Co. honors firefighter for 50 years of continuous service

It has been said of John W. "Jack" McClean that he is a marathoner, rather than a flash in the pan.

The Providence Volunteer Fire Company surprised the retired banker after a company meeting Sept. 8 by honoring him as its first member to complete 50 years of continuous active service.

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"It's really a big moment for both us and Jack," said company President Joe Benham.

"Look at any organization and you have the high-profile people who stay three years and are gone," said McClean's long-time buddy Mike Kernan, a former Providence captain and retired Baltimore City Fire Department assistant chief.

McClean, currently vice president of finance for the company, has held many offices and been crucial to Providence's success, Kernan said.

"It's because of his continuing dedication, his reliability and his willingness to attend the tedious late-night meetings and perform the behind-the-scenes work that ensures the financial security of the company," Kernan said. "It's one thing to make a daring rescue or fight a spectacular fire, but Jack's always there when you need him. That's where he shines."

Ask John Gochnauer, former president of the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company, who worked for the county years ago and had the responsibility for videotaping the fire department's 100th anniversary parade through downtown Towson and was stranded when his batteries ran low.

"Jack worked in a bank on Washington Avenue," Gochnauer said. "He immediately invited me in to run an extension cord from his building. If there's a means of solving a problem, Jack will come up with it."

McClean, 70, who lives in Phoenix with his wife Bonnie, spent much of his 44-year banking career in real estate lending and retired as a senior vice president.

In 1964, he was "conned" into joining Providence, he said, by two of his former Towson High School classmates whom he'd meet at the firehouse on Providence Road on weekends to ride back and forth to the University of Maryland.

"And I happened to live on a floor in the dorm with a lot of fire protection engineering students," McClean said.

Former Providence President Gary Zorn remembers those days when his father was a member, and he used to hang around the firehouse as a kid. He said the company finances revolved around the sale of fruitcakes.

"To raise money, we'd all chip in money to buy the ingredients for the Ladies Auxiliary to bake fruitcakes, and we had the time to pick them up and deliver them," he said. "We'd sit out in front on Sunday afternoons and play horseshoes."

Back then, McClean never imagined he would be so involved with the company 50 years later, or the "total evolution of technology" that would take place during that time, the change in tactics, the barrage of government regulations and "the onslaught of high-rises," as he put it.

"The suburbs back then were where not a whole lot of people lived," he said. "It all changed when businesses and factories moved to the county, and we were dealing with totally different types of structures."

Of course, he also never imagined fire trucks that cost $25,000 back then would cost more than $400,000 now, or that

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Providence would go from handling around 550 calls in the year he joined to nearly 900 now.

McClean has done his share of fighting fires in the company's first response area, from Dulaney Valley Road to Cromwell Bridge Road and from Loch Raven Reservoir south to the Baltimore Beltway. Yet his financial expertise has left its mark on Providence and the county's 32 other volunteer companies.

For 25 or so years, as a member of the board that presides over the association's Capital Revolving Loan Fund, McClean always has made sure the volunteers have the necessary funding.

The fire service for the 610-square-mile county includes 25 career stations partnering with the 33 volunteer fire companies. Basically, each volunteer company is an independent 501c-3 corporation that has to cover its own expenses and purchase its own trucks.

"If you don't run it like a business, you're going to go broke," McClean said.

He asks the right questions and makes suggestions," said McDowell, explaining that McClean wants to keep the companies motivated to make improvements, but he is also sensitive about preserving the fund's assets.

McClean still responds to some fire calls and occasionally drives the fire truck. He keeps track of radio communications out of concern for the safety of the firefighters.

"For me Providence has been a great brotherhood and sisterhood," McClean said, noting five of its 80 active members are women. "They're gutsy. Everybody says we're crazy running into a burning building while everybody else is running out of it.

"We are very, very much a family. You probably do some things for these guys that you wouldn't do for your own brothers and sisters."

During the honors Monday night, Baltimore County Councilmen David Marks and Todd Huff presented McClean with a proclamation from the County Council, and Sen.Jim Brochin presented McClean with a resolution from the state Senate .

Said McClean, "It's been an honor to serve this group. It's been a real pleasure and I look forward to many, many more years."

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