Before Bob McCormick had even finished asking the question, Howard Springsteen had an answer. McCormick had approached Fire Department President Springsteen for advice on who to nominate for the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year award, and Springsteen immediately named longtime member Sam Savia.
“He is such an institution,” said Springsteen. “He’s served in virtually every position in the fire department.” He noted Savia’s service in the Lions Club and Vienna’s youth baseball leagues. “I think he’s just a tremendous asset. I wish I could be as vibrant at my age as he is at his age.”
“It just became a no-brainer,” said McCormick, adding that the chamber’s awards committee had agreed with the decision unanimously.
Savia, 79, is a lifetime resident of Vienna and has served in the Volunteer Fire Department for 65 years.
While the fire station was being renovated last year, he was often on hand to explain to the contractor how and why various parts of the building had originally been constructed, said Springsteen. “Where else can you get that with a building that’s 50 years old?” he asked.
By the time he saw the present-day station built in 1958, Savia was already a veteran of the original station on Church Street. When he joined the department in 1941, at age 15, the firemen were fighting fires without the advantage of hydrants. They pumped or hauled water, he said, from one of the town’s four cisterns — one at Maple Avenue and Lewis Street, one on Park Street near where the Community Center now stands, one on Orchard Street and one behind the fire station — or from Salisbury Spring, near Windover Heights.
He and three other 15-year-old boys were able to join the department that year because the age limit had been lowered. “Most of the fellows were joining the service” to fight in World War II, he explained. Almost immediately, he was driving a truck and operating the pump.
At that time, hay fires were common, he said, as there were a lot of farms in the area. This was an era before Tysons Corner Mall was even a twinkle in a developer’s eye, even before Vienna’s first shopping center. Church Street was the town’s main drag. Savia remembers seeing the first pavement laid on Maple Avenue, a two-lane residential road that was home to a service station and a drug store. An ice cream parlor sat where the Vienna Inn is now located.
Driving through the now-historic Church Street area, Savia recalled one of the only fatalities the Vienna Fire Department had seen. The home of a minister and his wife, which was located where the Money & King Funeral Home now sits, caught fire, and the couple tried to escape through the door, rather than a window. “I guess it was a propane tank they had down there that exploded,” he said. “We found them downstairs, and he’d been trying to protect her.”
Savia grew up just down the street from the original fire station, in the house that is now home to the Joy Unlimited gift shop. It was a much smaller building at the time, without the addition on the west side and with only one story and a basement that his father had dug by hand. What is now the front portion of the building was a porch. Behind that was his father’s barber shop, where Savia began working at age 15, when his brother was drafted. In the part of the building where the family lived, he said, “there wasn’t a whole lot of room.”
To the left of the house was a bakery, and to the right, the building that is now Once Upon a Time was a general store. “This was about all there was to Vienna in those days,” he said of the Church Street district. The fire station sat on the block that is now home to Bazin’s.
By the time he graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, Savia had been named the station’s assistant secretary and treasurer. In fact, he had been elected within his first three months. “Some of the older guys didn’t write too well,” he explained. Since then, he has served as the president for seven years over two different stints, as well as a variety of other positions. He is active in the department to this day.
ONE WAY THE fire department kept its members interested during the earlier days was its participation in the Old Dominion Baseball League, through which it competed with neighboring fire departments. Savia’s active role in the league led to his playing an instrumental part in the construction of Waters Field.
The fire department had bought the land on which the field now sits and planned to build their station there. However, Vienna Elementary asked to purchase the land in order to expand the school. The school had no plans for the plot but needed to own a certain number of acres in order to increase its size. So the department sold the land but offered to build a ball field on it.
Savia’s job with C&P Telephone resulted in the use of old telephone poles in the construction of the field’s backstop. “I was able to get those poles set by the phone company and supplied by the phone company,” he said. However, the fire department stopped sponsoring its baseball league shortly thereafter, as it was trying to scrape together funds for the new station.
In 1954, the Vienna Host Lions Club called Savia, asking for his assistance in organizing Little League baseball in town. “Since we didn’t have a fire department team anymore, I was happy to do that,” he said. So began his involvement in the town’s youth baseball programs — through which he spent eight years coaching — as well as the Lions Club. “I felt any organization that could do what they were trying to do, I wanted to be a part of,” said Savia. And he still is part of the Lions Club.
In service to youth baseball, Savia helped in the construction of other fields in the area, including having phone poles installed for the backstops on the fields at Vienna Elementary and Glyndon and Yeonas parks, among others. Jessup-Savia Field at Nottoway Park is named in part after him.
"I'VE PROBABLY followed him in a way myself,” said longtime Volunteer Fire Department member Tom Bonner, noting that he too coached Little League for several years. It was Savia who convinced Bonner, as well as Ed Purcell, to join the fire department in 1961, shortly after both men had moved into town.
“This year, we’ve been there 45 years, and we blame all of that on him,” said Purcell. He said he still works with Savia at fire department open houses and the occasional Bingo night at the station. “I think he deserves it,” he said of Savia’s Citizen of the Year award. “But I might be prejudiced.”
“He’s a genuine person and, if I was to say, as good a person as you’d find,” said Bonner. “He’s really a dedicated friend and volunteer.”
Upon accepting his award at the chamber’s luncheon last Thursday, Savia complemented the organization’s activities and remarked that he had particularly enjoyed the Halloween Parade since his youth. He thanked everyone who contributed to the fire department’s capital campaign, as well as his wife, Gertrude. “She has always supported me, and I appreciate that,” he said.
After the ceremony, he said he and his wife would share the award. His daughter, Lynn Perkins, remarked, “He’s going to have to build an addition to the house to hold all his awards.”
Indeed, in his one-story rambler on Oak Street, just up the road from the present-day fire station, Savia has over two-dozen plaques and awards that commemorate various services he has rendered to the community. Most stem from his work at the fire department, including one marking his election to the Virginia State Firefighters Hall of Fame the year before last. Several are from the Lions Club, including one that denotes his year as president of the club’s Vienna branch. One is an Outstanding Service Award from Bell Atlantic, and another honors his contributions to the Vienna Centennial Coordinating Committee.
McCormick noted that Savia’s latest award will buy him his own vehicle at the front of this year’s Halloween Parade. “Whatever he’ll get is going to pale in comparison to what he’s given,” McCormick said.