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Friends Remember 'Patriarch' of Fire Department, Vienna

Sam Savia, 85, was a 'Vienna boy' from birth to death, friends say

For Sam Savia, the question was never 'Why,’ it was always 'what can I do and how?'

The lifetime Vienna resident was many things to many people, friends say: a 70-year volunteer with the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department, a 50-year member of the Lions Club, a familiar face during little league games at Waters Field, an usher at St. Mark's Catholic Church. A father, brother, husband and son.

Even when he long passed the age of retirement, the 85-year-old strolled to the fire department's Sunday bingo game like clockwork, first to the coat closet to hang up his coat and then to his seat behind the cash register, helping run the department's largest fundraiser week after week, year after year.

Still, as friends and family this week, they said it was the loyalty, kindness and calm demeanor with which Savia served, more so than any one position he held, they will remember most.

"He did his job and never looked for recognition or thanks. He just love doing what he did," said VVFD Chief John Morrison. "He just really wanted to give back to his community and he did that whatever way he could."

"[Savia] had such a love for this town," said longtime friend and colleague Charlie Singleton. "That was home ... he was just the kind of person that wanted to help everybody."

Savia was born in July 1926 on Church Street above his father’s Church Street barber shop, with brothers Phillip and Al and sisters Esther and Antoinette. Savia spoke about his father, an Italian immigrant, making wine in their back yard, Miller said. The elder Savia was grateful for the life Vienna gave them, Miller said — a sense of loyalty he passed on to Sam.

In those days, the Vienna fire department was a ghost of what exists in the area today. It was staffed entirely by volunteers, without a water system to draw from. All three Savia brothers joined the volunteer force at 15. Decades later, Savia would tell young recruits like Vienna Police Officer Bill Murray, who joined in 1979, about riding fire trucks with steel helmets and rubber coats.

"He was a walking encyclopedia," Morrison said. "He joined the department before Pearl Harbor — you don't see that kind of history anymore."

Singleton met Savia in the 1960s, after Savia had joined the Air Force, married his wife Gertrude and started a family. Singleton moved to the area for a new job at the Chesapeake and Potomac Phone Company, where he joined Savia as an engineer. Savia helped him find a home in Vienna, and it wasn't long before Singleton joined the department, too.

Savia had a knack for recruiting — at one point, Singleton said, 11 active volunteers had come from their telephone company— and plenty of places from which to do it. He was an umpire and coach for the Vienna Little League, and many of his players signed up at the firehouse years later.

Others, like Jerry Miller, Savia met volunteering at St. Mark's Catholic church. That was in October of 1961. At the end of November, Miller was sworn into the department, a membership both he and Singleton have retained for 50 years.

"He was very civic minded, very active,” Miller said.

At the department, and in all of the places he volunteered, Savia wore many hats. Savia was president two separate times, from 1966 to 1967 and again from 1981 to 1985. He was an engineer and also trained young members like Murray — a job, Murray said, that wasn't always easy.

"Sam spoke softly and was a needed constant when so many of us wild teens were serving. … Sam had his hands full with us from time to time," Murray. "I never saw him lose his temper and he certainly had the right to do so many times over. He would run the meetings with a quiet, soothing tone but you could tell when he meant business. He would lick his lips and bob his head and you knew it was end of discussion."

People respected Savia; he didn't get excited, didn't shout. He was fair, said Vienna Councilman Howard Springsteen, president of the department from 2001 to 2009: If he disagreed with you, he'd lay out his reasoning thoughtfully and deliberately.

"I honestly don't think anyone can find any bad word to say about him," Springsteen said.

Springsteen said Savia’s recollections of the department’s history were particularly valuable in the 2000s, when it was preparing for major renovations.

"You'd ask, 'Why was this building built this way?' or ‘Why is this wiring system the way it is?’ Sam knew every answer — he watched it be built," Morrison said.

In July, the town honored Savia’s service by dedicating the station's apparatus bay in Savia's name.

It was a day that completely blew Savia away, Singleton said.

"He was completely overwhelmed by all of this gratitude," Singleton said. "It had never crossed his mind. He went around and shook every single person's hand."

On Friday, less than five months after that ceremony, Savia died peacefully just blocks away from where he was born in his home on Oak Street. A Vienna ambulance took him to Money and King funeral home, accompanied by a police escort.

"How cool is that? To be born here, to make a life here, to die here. You just don't see that anymore," Springsteen said.

Friends say they hope a few of Savia’s principles live on: Be active in your community. Be kind. Think carefully about decisions. Be faithful. Be dedicated. Keep family — whether blood, career, or both — first.

But most of all, be loyal, even when going gets tough.

"There are times at whatever job or volunteer work things get frustrating and you want to give up, and in 70 years you can imagine how many frustrations he came across. But he kept out it, and the good times outnumbered by the bad by far. He was able to persevere," Morrison said. "That's what [I hope people will learn from him].”

Savia is survived by his wife of 57 years, Gertrude Savia; daughters Lynn Perkins of Burke, Karen of Richmond and Mary of Fairfax City; sister Antoinette and many other family members and friends. He was preceeded in death by his son David, brothers Phillip and Al and sister Esther. In place of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Vienna Volunteer Fire department or Evercare Hospice.

A viewing for Savia will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at, 171 Maple Avenue West, Vienna.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St Marks Catholic Church, 9970 Vale Road, Vienna, with internment at National Memorial Park in Falls Church. A reception will follow at the

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