MARLBOROUGH — John Manning’s first encounter with the wreckage of a large-scale fire — the type that devours buildings — came when he was 6 years old. A nightclub in Revere, Mass., had burned down the previous night, and Charles McCarthy, Manning’s uncle and chaplain for the Arlington, Mass., fire department, brought him to see the aftermath.
From atop his uncle’s shoulders, Manning, who grew up in nearby Winthrop, saw the distinctive footprint of a large blaze, the kind firefighters recognize immediately. Through the haze of smoke and steam that still lingered inside, Manning saw that flames had devoured the structure’s internal walls, leaving soot everywhere. If the nightclub had any furniture, it did not survive — he saw none.
There was evidence, too, of the previous night’s attempts to contain the fire. Firefighters milled about the building, surveying the waterlogged structure.
As a child, the now-longtime Marlborough resident didn’t grasp the magnitude of the tragedy. No one was hurt, but the business was a total loss. But if anything, young Manning thought the tour was cool.
Away from the watchful eyes of an impressionable 6-year-old, McCarthy did some of the less glamorous parts of his job: He helped firefighters cope with the stresses of their work and supported families in his community affected by tragedies.
“He never grabbed a hose, but he was there to support the firefighters,” Manning, 65, said.
McCarthy took Manning to several other scenes. Together, they chased fire trucks and listened to scanners for emergencies. Firefighting, Manning said, got into his blood early on.
As chief of the Marlborough Fire Department, Manning understands firefighting is not just about dousing flames. It requires decisive action — reviving or stabilizing people in medical emergencies or extricating folks from mangled cars — but also empathy for people in their worst moments.
Manning has been with the volunteer department for almost 30 years, spending the first half of his tenure as a firefighter before becoming chief in 2003.
The department has 25 members, and together, they respond to approximately 250 calls a year. Manning is always on call, responding to everything from births to car crashes to drug overdoses — and, yes, to fires.
Most of the calls, he said, are minor — automatic fire alarms or crashes that leave people unharmed or with minor injuries. Having lived in Marlborough since 1978 and raising a family here, Manning knows the rhythm of the small town. From his work at the department, he also knows that disasters, large and small, are par for the course. He knows the department, on average, will respond to one large fire or serious motor vehicle crash a year. Fatal crashes might happen once every two or three years, he said.
But between calls, Manning leads another safety-net agency — one that offers longer-term support to people who need it. Manning is the CEO of Southwestern Community Services in Keene, a 150-person nonprofit organization that assisted 12,743 low-income households in Cheshire and Sullivan counties in 2017, according to its 2018 annual report. Southwestern offers heating fuel assistance, homeless outreach, job training and Head Start programs, among other services.
Manning may have started as a fire chaser, but he matured into someone who can lead others in tricky situations.
And that journey began in college.
Crunching numbers to fighting fires
Manning studied accounting at UMass Amherst, mainly because his soon-to-be wife’s parents thought he should be an accountant. There, he joined the university’s fire department, initially for the privileges it afforded him: A fire department sticker meant you could park anywhere on campus, he said.
He learned the basics of firefighting there.
“We learned to be firefighters because you never knew if the students would be the first ones to get to a fire,” he said.
By the time he finished college, he’d married his high-school sweetheart, Phylis. Later, they moved to Hartford, Conn., where Manning got his first accounting job.
The couple, who by this point had children, moved to Marlborough in 1978. They moved to the Monadnock Region because Manning got a job at the Keene office of Wellesley, Mass.-based accounting firm Livingston & Haynes. When that office closed, he worked with Ron Ferguson, whose practice, Ferguson & Alexander CPA, in Keene is still in business.
One of Manning’s biggest clients at the time was Southwestern Community Services. Eventually, when the position of chief financial officer opened there in the late ‘80s, Manning took it. It was around that time that the Marlborough Fire Department had an opening, and Manning joined up there, too.
In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Manning and Phylis grew deep roots — they didn’t plan on staying in Marlborough for as long as they have, he said. They raised their three children, Ryann, Greg and Brendan, here.
“All of a sudden you’ve got friends, and you’re part of the community,” he added.
About four years ago, Manning became Southwestern’s CEO after its previous leader, Bill Marcello, fell ill and had to retire.
To Manning, his work as a firefighter and at Southwestern are connected. As CEO at Southwestern, he gets the 20,000-foot view of the region’s needs. He knows, for instance, that roughly 4,000 families receive help with their heating bills every winter. And that between all the programs it offers, Southwestern delivered services to more than 43,000 residents in Cheshire and Sullivan counties in 2017.
“I sit up here in the office; I’m not on the ground. I’m not the person that’s finding the homeless person in the woods or (part of the) family advocates that are going out and trying to help these families that are in crisis and visiting their homes,” he said. “So to me, it would be easy for (our clients) to just be statistics.”
But his weekly interactions as fire chief with people in need keep him from becoming blind to people’s struggles, he said.
“It has put me in a situation where I am the boots on the ground, literally,” he said. “… I’ll be at a scene where someone has overdosed, and their family is standing there while you’re trying to bring them back to life. I go into apartments for medical calls, or for whatever kind of calls, and a lot of people don’t see the struggles that some folks live with and some of the conditions that some folks have to live in.”
Living from emergency to emergency can be stressful, he said, but he credits his ability to cope with the unpleasant sides of his job to Phylis, who for the past four or five years has been an EMT at the fire department. When medical emergencies arise, the two will often respond together, she said. Before she worked at the Marlborough Fire Department, Phylis worked at the now-defunct Marl-Harris ambulance service, which served Marlborough and Harrisville.
“One of the hardest things about EMS is the privacy issue; we can’t talk to people about what happens, but we always have the luxury of being able to do that (with each other),” Phylis said.
At one point, their two sons, Greg and Brendan, also volunteered with their parents.
Lately, John and Phylis have been talking about retiring, though they have not set a plan. The couple have dreamed of living on a beach at some point, so they could smell the salt and feel the sand on their feet, he said.
And maybe one of these days, that’ll come true. Manning, who has always been a summer person, said he thinks about the next chapter whenever the harsh New England winter gets to him.
“When you’re sitting around, and you look at all the snow on the ground, you think about retiring.”