The 70th annual California University of Pennsylvania Homecoming Parade, which begins at noon Saturday, will be led by three men who each have 50 years of service with the California Volunteer Fire Department.
The grand marshals – Tom Hartley Jr., Jon Bittner and Wesley “Chuck” Sheets – also have ties to the university.
All three firefighters were honored with a surprise party in August at the convocation center. Among the guests were Cal U. President Geraldine M. Jones and her husband, Jeffrey.
“Seeing the impact they’ve had on so many with their unprecedented years of volunteer service made me realize they were the ideal people to be invited to be our grand marshals,” Jones said.
Hartley, the borough’s fire chief since 1981, retired from Cal U. in 2013 after more than 40 years as a maintenance repairman. He missed the homecoming festivities for 41 years while he tended to Adamson Stadium on busy football game days.
He saw his first homecoming parade since he was a youngster in 2014, when he served on the fire department’s standby crew. Last year he drove the truck that carried the 2007 national semifinalist football team, which was honored at homecoming. Both of his children are Cal U. graduates.
Though grateful and loyal to both the town and university, Hartley is looking forward to again being behind the scenes.
“Let’s put it this way: I am ready for the 50th-year celebration to be over,” he said with a laugh. “The guys are getting out of hand with everything, but I guess you don’t see too many people having 50 years with any organization.”
Bittner, the safety officer and past assistant chief, has 53 years of service with the fire department.
A longtime member and past president of California Borough Council, he spent more than 37 years as a teacher in the California Area School District’s elementary and middle schools after earning his degree from Cal U. in elementary education. One of his two children is also a graduate of the university.
More than 20 years ago, he helped to start a student membership program that recruits Cal U. students as volunteers.
Asked about leading the parade, he responded, “If you would have asked me that this was possible, that would the furthest thing from my mind. It was an honor to be asked. The university has always been supportive of the fire department, which we greatly appreciate.”
As the fire engineer, Sheets transports firefighters, carries equipment and pumps the water at fire scenes. He also drove the fire truck at many homecoming parades in the 1970s and 1980s, before his children’s activities began to occupy the day. His three children are all Cal U. graduates, and his father, Wesley, was a longtime maintenance superintendent at the university as well as a firefighter for 28 years.
Now retired after a 45-year career in information technology, Sheets echoed the sentiments of Hartley, who is also his brother-in-law.
“It’s something you look forward to, but with a little apprehension,” Sheets said of the parade. “Because what we do as firefighters is something we want to do, and we’re not looking for any accolades.
“Our pay is the gratification of helping others, but the banquet and being in the parade is certainly very nice.”