For a reason he doesn't remember, Gary Mesaris was walking in Herndon one day in 1965 and came across the Herndon Volunteer Fire Department. Intrigued, he stopped and visited with several members. He liked the camaraderie and fun he witnessed, so he decided to become a volunteer firefighter.
When Mesaris came back from his Army duties in Korea, instead of entering the agricultural field, which was the field that he had studied in college, he found a job with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Squad. Mesaris hasn't looked back since.
"It's one of those things that gets in your blood," he said.
Mesaris, 56, is one of two civil servants who, after many years of service to Fairfax City, is leaving at the end of May to pursue opportunities with the City of Alexandria. Mesaris will serve as fire chief with the City of Alexandria, and Jackie Henderson, Fairfax's city clerk for over 20 years, will become Alexandria's city clerk.
Those who know Mesaris and Henderson say Alexandria will soon be getting two exceptional employees.
"She's a good friend, a good city clerk," said administrative assistant Fran Chester, of Henderson.
"I think he's been an outstanding department head," said city manager Bob Sisson, of Mesaris. "Words are easy, but I reserve the highest accolades one would give for a fire chief."
Mesaris, meanwhile, said he will miss Fairfax but looks forward to working in Alexandria.
"It's a very exciting professional opportunity for me," Mesaris said.
MESARIS has lived in Northern Virginia all his life. Born at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Mesaris grew up in Falls Church before settling in Herndon with his family.
He worked with the county fire department for over 22 years before coming to Fairfax City in October 1990.
"I've been very fortunate during my time that I've been able to work with outstanding people," Mesaris said of Fairfax.
Mesaris decided to become a firefighter for several reasons. He enjoyed the camaraderie, as well as the challenge of fighting fires.
"The bond that exists is unequaled anywhere else. It literally becomes your family," Mesaris said.
"We used to joke that the fire was a bear, and we were going to take on the bear and come out the winner."
Mesaris also likes the interactions he has with those in the community.
"Little kids think you're neat," Mesaris said.
Those who know Mesaris said his approachability made him a good fire chief.
"He always seems available to talk to you if you wanted to talk about something," said Fire & Rescue Services technician David Whitacre. Whitacre recalled Mesaris coming out to a volunteer fire department near his home to help them out.
"He helped them make apple butter, just because," Whitacre said.
Sisson agreed with Whitacre's assessment of Mesaris.
"He's a guy who you feel you can naturally place your confidence in," Sisson said.
When Mesaris isn't at the fire station on University Drive, he's busy taking care of his 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. He also said he tries to play golf.
"The joke around here is, I'm not a golfer, I just take the clubs out every now and again," kidded Mesaris.
Henderson, Fairfax's City clerk since July 1982, will leave to become the City of Alexandria's city clerk. She has been a city employee for almost 24 years.
In addition to being city clerk, Henderson contributed to the well-being of city staff and of the wider community. She officiated at weddings and helped form a group to support employees during times of bereavement.
"She was a real asset to the community and the City Council," said Fairfax City Council member Scott Silverthorne.
Henderson's co-workers also said Alexandria will benefit from having her.
"Technically, [she's] a very sharp city clerk and a great supporter" of employees, Sisson said.
Chester agreed. "We're going to miss her, [and] the institutional knowledge that goes with her."