The Interview: Passion for Service

By Janet Reilly

Think February. Think passion, which leads me to this month’s conversation with San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and St. Stephen School Principal Sharon McCarthy-Allen. You’ll be hard-pressed to find two more passionate people about their jobs, their families and their communities. And, it just so happens, they’re the best of friends.

Photo by Monica Semergiu 

These two powerhouses grew up together, each a student at Mercy High School in their youth, but reconnected on a deeper level when Hayes-White’s three sons attended St. Stephen. Now they’re the closest of confidantes, sharing advice — and giving moral support — as dynamic women leaders in a fast-changing city.

After 15 years as chief, Hayes-White will retire on May 5, leaving behind a fire department more diverse than the one she joined nearly 30 years ago. Meanwhile, McCarthy-Allen — daughter of the late California Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy — remains at the helm of one of San Francisco’s top parochial schools.

I sat down with Hayes-White and McCarthy-Allen for a fun conversation about the highs and lows of their respective professions, the importance of family and what looms large in their future.

How did you meet and how long have you been friends?

Sharon: Our dads knew each other and were friends for many, many years. And Joanne and I knew each other — she’s a little bit younger than I am, at Mercy. She was the big star athlete, and I was the cheerleader. We really became become close friends 17 years ago when I became principal at St. Stephen.

Joanne: It’s true, the bond really came together when my boys were students at St. Stephen. She was the principal for all three of them …

Sharon: I remember, it was at the school uniform sale. I started to lift boxes and this nice mom came over and said, “Hey, let me help you out.” And it was Joanne. As a mom, Joanne always signed up for everything. She could have easily said, “I can’t do that; I’m the chief.” But she served the hot lunch, she helped with yard duty, and she went on the field trips.

You both grew up on the west side of town, come from tight-knit, Irish Catholic families. What was it like growing up in the Hayes household?

Joanne: So, I’m the youngest of four. And, to this day, my parents are the biggest mentors in my life. [Her father, Tom Hayes, died in 2010.] They made huge sacrifices to make sure we were given opportunities they were not. My dad immigrated here from Ireland in 1949. My mom was born and raised here, but both of her parents were from Ireland. Neither of my parents had a formal higher education, but they valued education, and so they said, “Whatever it takes, we’ll make every sacrifice we need to, to put all four of our children through college.”

What did they think of your decision to join the fire department after graduating from Santa Clara University?

Joanne: They were never not supportive, but they were skeptical. They expressed three concerns: No one looks like me — there were no women. It’s a very dangerous job. And it’s very physical, blue-collar work. But they said, “If that’s what you want to do, we’re behind you.” And, if it wasn’t for their support, I probably wouldn’t have made that choice because it was a bold choice, back in the day, in 1990.

Sharon, your father was Leo McCarthy — a San Francisco supervisor, speaker of the California Assembly, and ultimately, lieutenant governor of California. What is the biggest lesson you learned from your dad?

Sharon: Well, very similar to Joanne, everything in our household was about faith and family. And my dad had a tremendous influence on me. I mean, his picture is on my desk and I think about him every day. He instilled in me, as a young woman, that I could do anything I wanted to do. He was very proud of the fact that I wanted to go into education and become a teacher. And when I got the job as principal at St. Stephen’s, he was the first person I called. He and my mom were on a trip in Italy at the time and he purchased this bracelet for me. I wear it every day.

Joanne Hayes-White in uniform in 2006.

Joanne, I want to talk a little bit about your career. In 1990, you joined the fire department, one of the very first women in San Francisco, and probably in the country. In 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed you chief. What was it like to work in a very male-dominated industry?

Joanne: When the guys worked with me, I think they saw someone who wanted to be an equal contributor, who was hard-working and someone who took the job really seriously. There were challenges, but I probably had it a little easier than some of the other women who first came in. I knew the city pretty well. I knew how to get from point A to point B — so I had a sort of street cred, if you will.It also helped that I played a lot of sports growing up. [The fire department] is like a big team. … One of my proudest accomplishments [as chief ] is the diversity of our department. We have 16 percent women in uniform — you look at Boston and New York, they have less than 1 percent. We have a lot of bilingual firefighters. [This is important because] 75 percent of the time we go out the door, it’s a medical call. And to have someone who either looks like the person we’re responding to, or can speak the language, is hugely helpful. We have a blended team of people that really reflects the community we serve

That’s fantastic.

Joanne: I love San Francisco. Every day I put this uniform on, I’m as proud as I was on day one, when I first had my badge pinned.

Most fire chiefs have had a much shorter tenure in the job than you’ve had. What do you attribute your longevity to?

Joanne: Things that were taught to me at an early age by my parents: The importance of inclusiveness. Open-mindedness. Being a good communicator, but also being a really good listener, and being approachable. I have an open-door policy, which no other chief did, because of that command structure. But there’s certain things people may be struggling with — which they don’t want to share up the chain of command. Taking a little bit more of a different approach [is] a natural ability that women have.

And, what’s the most challenging aspect of your job, day to day?

Joanne: I never know how my day is going to unfold, but that’s what keeps it interesting as well. To have the weight of the safe-ty and security of 1,800 people on my shoulders is challenging.

Sharon, you have been in the field of education for 38 years now. What keeps you motivated and inspired?

Sharon: Well, the children, number one. I go to school every day for the children. And I am really blessed to have just an incredibly talented and energetic group of teachers that I work with and for. They are fantastic. And that’s a true gift because it is very hard for teachers to stay in the Bay Area right now. They cannot afford to live and work here, they absolutely cannot.

Sharon McCarthy-Allen with two students at St. Stephen Catholic School.

How do you deal with the issues of recruiting and retaining teachers in San Francisco?

Sharon: I think we’re almost at a crisis point. The rents are so high. And you will find when you do a census of teachers, across the board, three or four are sharing a flat. And they’ll turn the dining room into one of the bedrooms …

Joanne (interjecting): … which makes it a fire safety problem.

Sharon: That’s true! But what we try to do for our teachers is to provide an environment where you’re going to be supported and enriched. If you want to take courses, any continuing education, we offer that. And, I would say we’re a school that really has our teachers’ backs. I’ve always wanted our students to aspire to do whatever they want to do, but to see education as a viable choice. To see being an educator as a worthy and noble profession. And to think, “Wow, I could be a teacher someday. And wouldn’t that be great?”

Joanne, what about recruiting firefighters?

Joanne: We don’t have a problem with recruitment, which is great. We have a waiting list. Currently, on the active list, I have about 3,500 people, and we hire about 110 per year. So, being a firefighter is still very popular.

Sharon, I would imagine dealing with parents in your job, at times, is equally or more challenging than dealing with students. Am I right?

Sharon: I’m lucky that I have the trust of the parent community. They know me, they know my style, they meet me on day one. I do all the school tours myself. I do yard duty in the morning and afternoon. It gives parents a chance if they want to talk to me in person. If they want to tell me their spouse is ill or something is going on. I always keep the first period of the school day open after morning announcements. So if somebody needs to come in, they’re not worrying about it all day. And I try very hard never to communicate through email. If it’s about your child or it’s about you, it’s just too important.

Joanne, you’re set to retire this spring. What’s next for you?

Joanne: My immediate goal is taking the summer off. One of my sisters and I want to take my mom on a trip to Southeastern Oregon. She’s never seen where her father’s grave site is, so we want to take her there. She’ll be 94 in June. Then, taking a trip, probably to Hawaii, with my boys. And then, I’ll probably hit reset in the fall. I think there will be some possibilities and opportunities. I’ve kept journals over 29 years [in SFFD]. I’ve found them almost therapeutic — just to jot down some narrative, or points [I wanted to make], or remembering a day or a story. Possibly, compile all of that and write a book. I have a title.

What is it?

Joanne: Taking the Heat: My Journey Out of the Fire.

I like it! Sharon, what does the future hold for you?

Sharon: My plan is to just keep doing what I’m doing. When I no longer walk through that front door and am just so thrilled to be there, and so happy knowing I can make a difference, then I know it’s time for me to retire. And right now, I still walk in every day ready to go. So, I just love it.

If you were governor for the day, or president for the day, and could make one change in education, what would it be?

Sharon: I would make sure that every single child walking through every school door had tremendous self-esteem and felt good about themselves.

Joanne: And had the homes, maybe, that we had. That we were blessed with, right?

Sharon: Right! … [and that kids] didn’t look in the mirror and see something physically wrong with them, or didn’t look in the mirror and think they weren’t as smart or as athletic [as the other kids], but instead looked in the mirror and just saw the beautiful individual they are.

Lightning Round

I’m happiest when …

Joanne: I’m with my family.

Sharon: I’m with my family.

The biggest risk I’ve taken …

Joanne: Taking the job as a firefighter.

Sharon: Taking on the job as principal.

If I had a magic wand, I would …

Sharon: Solve the homeless problem.

Joanne: Oh, my God that’s exactly what I was going to say. I almost shouted it out first before you did.

My biggest regret …

Sharon: I don’t have any regrets.

Joanne: I have very few regrets in my life. I’ve been blessed in so many ways. If you could call it regret, something that will stay with me forever is the loss of the two firefighters on my watch who were killed in the line of duty. At the time it really couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s something that sticks with me as a regret, or something that makes me very sad.

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