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Van Dyken answers final call

Longtime Ripon fire chief passes away at age 99

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Van Dyken answers final call

At the end of his career Ripon Fire Chief Nick Van Dyken and the restored engine “Ol’ Gertie” were the focus of a Ripon Almond Blossom parade on the city’s main street.

Photo courtesy Ripon Fire Department/

POSTED March 26, 2013 1:54 a.m.

Two Ripon volunteer firefighters – Joe Azevedo and Bert Ballatore – who served under Nick Van Dyken for some 30 years had nothing but good to say about their first chief who died Sunday less than a month away from his 100th birthday.

Nick has resided in the Bethany Home skilled nursing facility for a number of years, often talking to visitors about the love of his fire service vocation from his wheelchair in the hallway.

Azevedo was quick to say “he was a great chief” and a good instructor who saw that things got done in a proper way or he would show you exactly how you should be doing things.

Ballatore chimed in saying, “He could chew you out and you’d feel good about it when he was done. There will never be another one like him and you never forget your first chief.”

Both men were involved in the restoration of a 1926 engine nicknamed “Ol’ Gertie” that was used by the chief when he rode in an Almond Festival parade after his retirement.  There were thousands of hours of hands-on labor by volunteers to bring the pumper to its original glory.

The longtime Ripon farmer added that Nick had given him a personal first-aid CPR course in 1961 before he and his wife Jackie were married. 

“I still have the card,” Ballatore said.  “He was one heck of a firefighter.”

Azevedo remembered a simple but very valuable lesson he learned from the chief in just climbing a ladder the right way that could prevent injury to one of his men. 

“You never hang onto the rungs of a ladder but rather the side rails in case you slipped,” he warned us.

It was at the age of 25 that Van Dyken applied to become a volunteer with the rural department late in 1937.  Nick was appointed chief in December of 1942 when Chief “Slim” Absher retired.  He was only 29 at the time – four years after signing on as a volunteer, but for the first 12 years he was a volunteer chief.

The population of the City of Ripon ballooned from less than 1,000 residents to 3,500 and incorporated in 1945 during the years he was with the department.  A second fire station was built in 1954 near Highway 120.  It was that year that Nick was officially hired as the first full-time employee of the fire district that reached far out into the countryside.

Nick and his wife Nellie served the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week after the district built its new station on Stockton Avenue in the downtown section of town.  Nick and his family moved into the residence alongside the station where they continued to serve the community.  

It was a team of Nellie answering the emergency telephone and dispatching, or sounding the community siren, with Nick and volunteers manning the engines.  The first siren was mounted on the Nestles Coffee tower near the fire station at the second later installed near the Christian School on West Main Street at Vera Avenue.

Ripon Police Chief Harvey Douma served side by side with Van Dyken during those early years.  Douma noted that officers had only one radio and that connected them with the Sheriff’s Department.  While Nellie Van Dyken dispatched for fire, she did the same for the police, well, sort of. 

Douma explained there was a high rise pole near the fire station at Stockton Avenue and First Street with a red light mounted on top.  When Nellie had a police call she would switch on that light to alert officers they needed to find a telephone and call her to learn where they were needed in the city.

The former police chief added, “Nick Van Dyken was very instrumental in building a good fire department in Ripon and made a nice volunteer department out of it.  He was well respected in the community.”

It was in 1963 that the city and rural departments consolidated to form the Ripon Consolidated Fire District.  Ten years later Nick began training personnel to staff an ambulance that would evolve into becoming the first paramedic ambulance in all of San Joaquin County that would associate itself with a trauma center in Modesto responsible for saving the lives of many heart attack and highway crash victims in the city and rural areas around Ripon.

Viewing is scheduled at the Deegan Chapel in Ripon from 3 until 5 p.m. on Friday.  Graveside service is set for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Ripon Cemetery and a Memorial will be held at Immanuel Christian Reformed Church on Fourth Street at 11 a.m.

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