What others could consider calamities John Bresnan saw as stories. Whether it was about the time he burned rice because he forgot the water or whatever crazy thing had happened on the fishing boat, his tales were just as funny every single time. “My dad used to say that if you asked John what time it was, he would tell you how to build the watch first,” his sister Charlotte Poe says. “He was always a storyteller.”
And so it’s fitting that as the Homewood community mourned the loss of its fire chief of 27 years in January, story after story was shared, stories of fires and fishing, but most of all of friendship.
The most fitting tributes to Fire Chief Bresnan, who was 58 when he passed away, were never short. “By the time you got done listening to (John’s) story—it may be four hours later—you had every single detail of that story. He remembered things most people would not,” Homewood Fire & Rescue Lieutenant Brandon Broadhead says.
But Bresnan’s favorite story to tell was “how I was born and ruined a beach trip for them,” his daughter Lexi says. Nineteen years ago she arrived six weeks before her due date while her parents were vacationing near Apalachicola. With that, Lexi earned her middle name, “Bay,” and countless trips to the Apalachicola doc in the box where she was born with her dad to reminisce for years to come. Bresnan wouldn’t have it any other way. “You could always tell if he was talking to Lexi (on the phone),” Broadhead says. “He got up from whatever we were doing and took her call. She was the light of his life.”
It was quite fateful, really, that Lexi would write her life into her dad’s that way considering how passionate Bresnan was about the beach. He and his close friend Billy Hewitt would take Hewitt’s boat out from Bear Point near Orange Beach often with Bresnan wearing his “lucky fishing shirt,” and often he’d take other fishing excursions with Lexi while she was happy to sit on the boat and look for dolphins. In those moments, he’d fully embrace Margaritaville mode since, after all, he knew the words to every single Jimmy Buffet song and owned every one of his albums. Bresnan’s grandfather, a fisherman on oil rigs in Panama City, had taught him to fish growing up, and he’d go on to earn a marine biology degree from UAB and intern at Dauphin Island Sea Lab before working for Homewood Fire Department.
With 27 years on the job, not only was Bresnan the longest standing fire chief in the state, but he was also the youngest in Homewood history to take the job in the first place. He’d joined the Homewood department in 1987, and by 1992 he was still the most junior firefighter—the “kitchen man” responsible for doing the dishes and other thankless jobs. But because he’d been a fire captain in Center Point though, he was eligible to take the civil service test, and his score landed him as the top candidate for chief. “Most people don’t get promoted to apparatus operator that quickly, much less to chief,” Homewood Fire Battalion Chief Lori Stoney explains. “He worked one day wearing a blue shirt, and he came back the next wearing his white shirt with bugles.”
And in the nearly three decades since then, Bresnan was not only chief but a friend to everyone in the department. “He never treated anyone as if they were below them, he wanted to know about them,” Lexi says. “Someone told me if he didn’t know he had the badge on, no one would know he was in charge.”
Every firefighter has a unique story about a time Bresnan helped them with a project or went fishing with him. He knew who each of their kids were and asked about them. “The thing that sticks out the most about chief was that he made so many people feel special,” Stoney says. “He spent time with people that no one else knew about. I have had several people come in and talk to me (since he died) who I didn’t realize had a relationship with him away from work.”
Above all, the fire chief firmly believed in people. “It wasn’t about what was on paper, it was about the person,” Broadhead states. “He took chances on people and in turn we have some of the most loyal firefighters in the state. That was me too; he believed in me and promoted me. He mentored me every single day.”
No matter the situation, on the job or off, Bresnan was calm, cool and collected in each and every moment. “We don’t have emergencies, we fix emergencies,” the chief was known to say on the job. When firefighters were working a structure fire, they’d often turn around and Bresnan would be there with his ever-calming presence. In 13 years working with him, Broadhead never once saw his chief get angry. Even when his stepson Kyle Raburn—who Bresnan always considered fully his son—went through what he calls his “teenage rebellion,” he says Bresnan never once lost his composure.
The only thing to ever rival Bresnan’s love for his children was the 1927 Homewood firetruck he loved to tinker on. “He knew that truck inside and out,” Stoney says. “I don’t think anything made him prouder than driving around and in the parades and on We Love Homewood Day.”
Bresnan was, however, equally proud of Homewood Fire earning a Class 1 ISO Public Protection Classification in 2018, what Stoney describes as the “best fire protection you can get short of having a fire truck parked outside each residence.” Reaching that rare milestone also means insurance savings for residents and businesses.
Lexi and Raburn both note that their dad was ever teaching them how to live life to its fullest—often rife with spontaneity. Lexi, a big musical theatre fan, recalls when she was 15 mentioning she wanted to go to see Newsies and that the closest it was playing was in South Carolina. And lo and behind, that weekend she and her dad drove to South Carolina to see the show.
Other things about Bresnan worked like clockwork though, like his morning stop at O’Henry’s on 18th Street. He ordered a medium mocha with whipped cream every single day. “He’d stand and talk to us for hours about current events,” says Rick Munts, who manages the coffee shop.
“He cared tremendously about everyone who came in. When Johnny Montgomery’s daughter passed away recently, he was the first person to say, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing because I want to join in on that? Do you know what I can do?’ We had made a donation to a domestic violence foundation, and he said whatever we donated he’d match. He was a ray of sunshine.”
And if a friend or his kids ever needed him to assist with a house project, Bresnan would be there as soon as he could. Raburn has his dad to credit for how he knows how to mount a TV, hide wires, eradicate termites and fix holes in walls. “Helping others is not a chore for John, it was who he was,” Raburn says, also noting how incredibly thoughtful his dad was down to quirky Christmas gifts.
One year a raccoon had fallen through the ceiling into a closet in the West Homewood house Raburn was renting, and months later, he found a raccoon ornament in his Christmas stocking from Bresnan. “We laughed and laughed,” Raburn recalls. “The fact that he remembered that for six months just to share a laugh with me is the definition of John’s desire to bring joy to others.”
Above all, Raburn will tell you, his and Lexi’s dad created experiences. Whether he was grilling steaks or running with his Siberian husky Rosco in the backyard, fishing or fighting fires, Bresnan was fully present. “He wasn’t wasting time, he just wasn’t ever in a hurry,” Raburn said in his eulogy. “He was creating connecting and making memories. He wasn’t on his phone, he wasn’t watching TV, he was there.”