Most Viewed Stories
Family recalls life of ex-Wellton fire chief
Family and friends are remembering Petronilo Thomas “Tommy” Rivera, a former Wellton fire chief who served the department for nearly 20 years and a man who dedicated his life to volunteering in his community.
“He loved his community. Anytime he could help out, he did, said son Mark Rivera, who is currently the chief of the Wellton Volunteer Fire Department. “I am who I am because of my dad. A lot of kids want to grow up to be doctors and their favorite superhero was Batman, but mine was my dad.”
Tommy Rivera passed away Oct. 7 at the age of 71.
Mark said some of his fondest memories of his father, who worked his way up through the ranks of the Wellton Fire Department, are of when he was about five or six years old and tagging along with him to the fire station.
“I was just a little guy. I was the station brat. Now you can't do it, but back then you could because they had their own channels. He would let me talk on the radio to the guys,” Mark said. “I remember after those guys would come back from a fire call, I was so happy because I got to wash and roll the hose. Now I look at it and know they conned me. But I got to wash and roll the hose. It was the greatest thing in the world. Those are times I will never forget.”
Smiling through a tear-filled face, Mark also talked fondly about how his dad, who always listened to a scanner, would call him every time he was responding to a fire.
“He used to get me so frustrated. He had a scanner and knew when I was going to be called out,” Mark said. “I could be going 80 mph to a call and he would call me up saying, ‘Son, you got a call.' He would also say, ‘Call me when it is over.'”
Mark said he got a short break from his dad's calls when all law enforcement and public agencies switched to new digital radio frequencies, which couldn't be picked up by scanners. He said his dad was initially mad about it, but that he eventually figured out a way around it.
“I would text my children whenever I got a call, just to let them know. Dad found out about it so he would have my son tell him whenever I got a call. (My dad) would then call me and tell me that I had a call,” Mark said. “My son knew to call his papa whenever I had a call. It wasn't until recently my son told me about it. I was like, ‘Man, that's how he knew.'”
Born on May 31, 1941, in Safford, Tommy Rivera was one of the first EMT volunteers for Tri-Valley Ambulance and was a member of Southern and Union Pacific Railroad for 40 years, where he retired as a foreman.
“Hank Green, who is the fire chief in San Luis now, was with the Yuma Fire Department at the time, and gave my dad his first EMT class,” Mark said.
Tommy was a member of the Knights of Columbus, where he held the titles of Grand Knight, St. Joseph's Council, District Deputy, faithful navigator. He was also a member of the Wellton Parks & Recreation Committee and the town's Community Improvement Committee. During the summer he would also volunteer as a baseball and basketball coach. He even pursued his education at Arizona Western College, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Daughter Sophia said one of her fondest memories of her father was that in the winter he would get up early so he could make all his children hot chocolate milk, which he would serve to them in bed as he woke them up.
“He wanted his kids to be warm. We would have friends come over to spend the night because they wanted the same thing,” Sophia said. “My mom would get so mad at him because he would leave the dirty cups for her to clean. Eventually he started washing the cups so she wouldn't complain.”
Sophia also talked about how it was her father, not their mother, who took them all shopping to get their school supplies every year. She also said she will never forget how he used to make them homemade popcorn in big brown paper bags.
“We used to watch Disney every Sunday night and we had to have our popcorn,” Sophia said. “He would pop it on the stove in a regular pan, then put the butter and seasoning in the brown paper bag and just shake it.”
Sophia's sister Sylvia said she has so many fond memories of their father that there are too many to talk about. Sylvia said her dad, who was known for his love of dancing, was always asked to chaperone their events when they were growing up. She said being young girls, she and her sisters were originally horrified at the notion, but later realized it was just another way for him to be a part of their lives and spend more time with them.
“He would dance with everybody, sometimes even by himself. Sometimes he would even sometimes pull us out there as kids and dance with us,” Sylvia said. “People knew my father was coming and would wait for him. They loved the thought that he was going to be there.”
Sylvia also remembers she and her father also once took accounting and computer classes together at AWC. It's something she said he would never let her forget, especially because he would always tease her about having a higher grade point average.
“It was by 0.5, and he never let me forget it. He even told my friends about it when I took him to Virginia with me for a visit,” Sylvia remembered. “Finally I had to say, ‘Dad I'm not going to school with you anymore.'”
Mark, Sophia and Sylvia also talked about how their dad was always making time for his children, calling each of them every day. They told a story about how he would always answer his phone, even in church. One time this happened in the middle of a sermon, prompting the pastor to tell the congregation, “It's Tommy, he has a lot of children.”
“He would never not answer his phone if we were calling,” Mark said. “At least his ring tone was Amazing Grace.”