When Bob Pawlan responded to a fire that started in a Eucalyptus grove in Petaluma in late September, he and his Red Cross colleagues were shocked to see the fire's devastation — the blaze quickly spread to more than a dozen homes near the grove, destroying four of them. "I thought the whole neighborhood was going to go up in smoke," he says.
The incident not only served to remind Pawlan of the support the Red Cross provides to people when they need it most, but it reminded him that his former career — as a high school teacher and varsity coach — was also one in which he made a lot of positive connections with a lot of people.
Shortly after the fire started on September 27, Pawlan and two other Red Cross volunteers were summoned to the scene because of the possibility that a shelter would be needed for the many people the fire displaced from their homes. "When I got there, a woman grabbed my hand and asked if I could help her find her son, her daughter-in-law, and the couple's infant child because they lived in that neighborhood," he recalls.
When Pawlan wrote down the names, he had a déjà vu moment: "The guy's name looked familiar to me, and I began to wonder if he was a former student of mine," he says. "It turned out that the woman's son was one of my former students and basketball players, from about 30 years ago."
The good news is that the family was eventually found in good health. But Pawlan's walk down memory lane didn't end with that happy news. "I also ran into two firefighters on the scene — one from the Petaluma Fire Department and one from CalFire — who were also former students of mine."
Pawlan greatly admires the first-responder work the two men are now doing in their community. "And I guess it also made me a little bit proud to have them see what I have done with my life in retirement," he adds. "Through my work with the Red Cross, I too am helping people."
At Petaluma High School for 36 years as a teacher of biology and marine biology and a coach of basketball and football, Pawlan had helped plenty of people. And for the past year-and-a-half, the Rohnert Park resident has continued to serve — as a volunteer for the California Northwest Chapter, out of the Red Cross's Santa Rosa office.
"I'm like a Swiss Army knife," he says. "I do a lot of things for the local chapter: logistics, help with the youth clubs, and of course disaster services. I feel confident that I can lead a team and help others. It's just something I've done my whole life."
At least three people at the Petaluma fire site in September can attest to that.
Pawlan's chance meeting with his former students and student-athletes is becoming something of a habit. He had similar encounters during two other Red Cross deployments this past fall: at the Clayton Fire in Lake County and, across the country in North Carolina, in service to people affected by Hurricane Matthew.
"It's a small world, I guess," he says. Perhaps. But regardless of the globe's size, Bob Pawlan is making every year he has on it count.