WATSONVILLE—One of the pillars of the Watsonville Fire Department, Capt. Matt Ryan, will soon retire.
That means on July 27 a mountain of experience in the world of fire and rescue will walk out the door. It also means a departure of a giant player in a host of community projects such as Toys for Tots and Share Your Holidays, where Ryan has helped round up thousands of toys for the needy.
“I was born to help others—that’s just who I am,” he said. “When I head out to work I always say,’ Now I get to go out and help people.’”
Ryan is one of a handful of city employees who took advantage of an early retirement program offered by the City of Watsonville. The program, a way of slimming the city’s budget to meet Covid-19 losses, offers employees the opportunity to retire while maintaining their medical plan coverage for up 36 months. Employees were also offered a one-time lump sum payment of up $25,000.
Combined with a voluntary time off program, the city saved roughly $156,000 for the 2020/21 fiscal year.
Born in 1962 at the old Watsonville Community Hospital, Ryan said he attended MacQuiddy Elementary School where Ann Soldo was the principal.
“She could be mean, but she was good,” Ryan said.
He attended E.A. Hall Middle School and Watsonville High School. He excelled as a defensive tackle for the Wildcatz before graduating with the class of ‘81.
Ryan said he aspired to be a farmer, but the ‘89 Loma Prieta Earthquake “changed everything.”
“I had been a reserve [fireman] for about seven years and when the quake hit I was cooking for everyone,” Ryan said. “I remember Don French’s wife was there, a bunch of cooking for like a week until Cal Fire took over.”
Ryan said that once the cooking frenzy settled down the crews told him they were “so grateful” for his unwavering help.
“They asked me if I would take the (firefighter) test,” Ryan said. “I can’t believe I passed it; that changed everything.”
He became a full-time firefighter in 1990.
“The coolest thing was when they gave me that badge and I got to feel the weight of it on my shirt: How cool is that?” he said. “Those were the days when we used to have one-man truck companies; things have changed so much since then.”
On top of firefighting, Ryan teamed up Dalilah Valadez more than 30 years ago to help collect toys for the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program.
“It got started by great folks like (former fire chiefs) Don French and Gary Smith,” Ryan said. “I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of toys we’ve given away over the years. But I’ve never seen any of this as a burden; it’s been an honor, like being a firemen—you get to help people.”
Ryan was also one of the original members of the department’s first Honor Guard and was a member of the hazardous materials team. In addition, he has for decades been the lead cook for opening day the Santa Cruz County Fair at the popular Ice Cream Social for seniors. He also served as the chef for the fair’s livestock auction barbeque. Last year he was awarded for his participation with a proclamation, a hat and a jacket.
Ryan said he plans to continue with peer support for first responders in his retirement.
“It’s a way I can keep my hand in the cookie jar when I retire,” he said. “I was born to help people. It is just what you get to do. I give all credit to god.”
He said he will miss his “family” in the firehouse.
“I’ve got a list of things to do (in retirement), but the main thing I want is to get a full night of sleep,” he said. “I guess one of the most important things about all this is the nurturing part—we are a big wonderful family—the family is everything. That’s one of the best things about the fire department.
“The amazing thing is how many super people I got to work around—people like Fausto, Kikuchi, Avila, French, Lucas, Gluck, Knego and my brother Rob, to name a few. And working with this community has been so gratifying—I mean—I feel like I know everybody.”