Chariots of Fire

Special to the Looking to the 21st Century annual edition
Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune / 6-29-2001

Updated 3-2-2010

Ann Sutton has changed over the almost 30 years I've known her. She's now owner of a very successful Sparks printing and graphics firm, Nevada Instant Type. She's also a happily-married grandma.

But get her talking about arson investigation, and three decades fall away. For just a moment, she's transported to another place. Her voice quickens as she takes you there.

It's an old passion born of a younger day from unrequited desire and love unfulfilled. People usually have to pay a price for such emotions. Ann Sutton paid in full.

In the early 1970s, she worked at an Instant Print shop on S. Virginia Street., a single mom trying to make her way in the world. Earth Day was still a revolutionary idea in Nevada. Nixon and Kissinger were on the ropes. The Vietnam War was collapsing. Archie Bunker ruled prime time. Ms. Magazine was not yet three years old. The girl at the copy shop did not seem a likely candidate to advance the great issues of the day.

— Daily Sparks Tribune file photo © 1997 Debra Reid

Across town, Tamara DiAnda was still a couple of years away from enrolling in Sparks High School. Their paths have never crossed, but their lives have been entwined for almost 25 years.

Ann Sutton was interested in police work and tried to enroll in criminology classes at Truckee Meadows Community College. When she found no openings, someone suggested she look into fire science. Her first response: "What's that?" The innocent signed up and was soon hooked and laddered.

"It really started getting interesting," Sutton says, fondly remembering trips to southwest Reno homesites where an arsonist had struck.

"I learned how fires would do things to glass and what you could learn from shards and bits in the ashes," she effused. Inside that businesswoman and grandmother lurks Sherlock Holmes.

She inquired with the City of Reno about applying for a job as a fire inspector upon graduation.

"I was 45 credits into my degree when I found I couldn't go into the field," she told me when I interviewed her for the Tribune in 1989. The city's union contract stated that anyone applying for inspector or investigator needed at least two years' experience as a frontline firefighter.

The provision was understandable, if very questionable. Fire safety officers made three or four thousand a year more than firefighters, so the boys wanted such positions reserved for any of their own who might want to move up. Few, if any, did so.

Ann Sutton took stock of herself and decided she would not let her dream die that easily. She would apply to become a firefighter. Her teachers and classmates at TMCC, including future Sparks Mayor Tony Armstrong, were supportive. Thus began Ann Sutton's journey to the seventh circle of hell.

Even in 1977, the good ole boy system was alive and well in the former Mississippi West. Especially in the public services, bigotry and racism were not just entrenched, they were almost a job requirement.

You had to be a white guy, preferably of the right ethnic heritage and with a relative or friendly politician on the inside. It also helped to profess the proper religion and hold membership in the right male-only secret society.

The remnants of Nevada's unwritten policies of apartheid were still operational in the Truckee Meadows. On the periphery of downtown Reno, the former "black clubs," the only places African-Americans could gamble until the 1960s, were still in business. The Elks Club allowed a white man into membership, but barred his Japanese-American son. To this day, broad sections of Reno and Sparks carry now-unforceable deed restrictions against ever selling property to non-whites.

This was the incestuous good-ole-boys society Ann Sutton unwittingly challenged.

Reno Fire Chief Harry Van Meter would have none of it. He authorized doing whatever it took to make sure Sutton washed out, as long as the blame would not come back on him.

The 125-pound young mother found herself attacked on all fronts. Some firefighters were openly contemptuous, others were intimidated into silence after initially defending Nevada's first female firefighter. Some wives were particularly vicious, accusing her of being after their husbands.

She was ordered to handle a high pressure hose alone, something it takes as many as five men to control. Is anyone ever supposed to ride such a critter solo?

"Absolutely not. Never," 14-year Reno firefighter Tammy DiAnda-Lopes told me last week. Sutton had ladders pushed away from walls while she was climbing. A fireman hurled a huge pipe wrench at her from behind, narrowly missing her head just as her brother arrived to take her to lunch. She physically restrained her much larger sibling.

"This is exactly what they want. Don't do it," she admonished him.

Even food and drink were hard to come by. Her battalian chief liked to take her to outlying fire stations for training and leave her standing outside a public facility which was never supposed to be locked. The boys inside thought it funny to leave the outcast standing in the sun.

Once, her air hose was turned off during fire training. Ann Sutton's life was in danger.

She endured snide remarks about what would happen to her child if Sutton were to die. Every evening after her shift, she was handed a letter of resignation to sign. After she continually refused, Van Meter fired her, announcing to the media within an hour that she couldn't do the job.

Civil rights organizations from across the country offered her free legal assistance. She had no interest in reinstatement.

"I've lost all respect for them," Sutton said. "(Civil rights lawyers) told me 'you can get reinstated, get full back pay and quit the same day.'" She wanted none of it.

In 1979, the city dropped the requirement of two years' firefighting experience for fire prevention inspectors. No one was applying. Firefighters apparently liked their jobs and didn't want nine-to-five work.

The two-year rule was dropped for fire prevention officers in 1988, the same year Federal Dist. Judge Ed Reed's consent decree was implemented by the city. Reno had been ordered to break up the good ole boys society.

Tammy DiAnda, born and raised in Sparks, was among six women, five of them single, hired that year. She was pushed into the job by friends who saw how stressed out she had become working with cancer patients. After graduating from Sparks High, she attended UNR and went on to a doctorate in naturopathic medicine.

"I skied with a lot of firemen who decided to save my life," Tammy DiAnda-Lopes told me last week.

"I didn't think it would be a career," she added. She soon found that service as a firefighter provided much of the same satisfaction of serving the community without the heartbreak of witnessing the pain and suffering of valiant cancer victims.

"You have the opportunity to help people in a lot of ways the public does not see," she said. She first accepted the job "because of the physical challenge" and because of romantic images from her childhood. She remembers watching firemen hanging onto their trucks on the way to a call.

"It's exciting. You're going into a building everybody else is running out of."

Did it help that her reputation as a weightlifter preceded her?

"Immensely," she chuckles. The good ole boys respected a female who could kick their asses.

Even at age 26, she was becoming a legend among powerlifters. With the help of U.S. team coach Bob Lopes, Tammy DiAnda was on her way to national championships and international status. She eventually won two world powerlifting titles and broke a seven-year old world bench press record (315 pounds) for middleweight women (148 to 165 pounds).

Bob Lopes, business manager of Sparks Local Union 350 of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters and a weightlifter himself, eventually became Mr. Tammy DiAnda. They reside in the Rail City.

A couple of months ago, Reno Fire Chief Chuck Lowden promoted Tamara DiAnda-Lopes to captain, the first female so honored in Reno or Sparks.

"I think it's wonderful. I've always said there's no reason a woman couldn't do this job," Sutton said last week.

Regardless of court orders and more muscle, Capt. DiAnda-Lopes did not find the hostile environment which confronted Sutton. Van Meter was gone, replaced by Otis Turner, a man who engendered fierce loyalty among his people.

"Turner was a progressive person," Sutton told me in 1989. "He recruited many of the females they have now. He was making a progressive, tremendous chief," she added.

By contrast, Van Meter fostered a climate of fear and intimidation. Turner's leadership made a world of difference.

In 1989, Reno's court-ordered goal was a fire service comprised of 54 percent men to 46 percent women. Back then, of 224 RFD employees, only 15 were women, six of them firefighters. Today, DiAnda-Lopes is one of 12 female firefighters and one of 51 captains.

Sparks, which had never promoted ANY black city worker until controversial police officer Melvin Gentry made sergeant a year or so ago, is also far behind RFD. Sparks employs one whole female firefighter. If you want a good laugh, look up the city's "Diversity Statement."

"The whole point of recruitment and training is to see if you've got good people," Sutton said last week. "Reno had it shoved down its throat. The right way is outreach. The wrong way is having it shoved down your throat," she added.

"A person should be judged on merits. I don't think forced anything is the way to go," she said in 1989. "A progressive chief makes all the difference," she noted last week.

Capt. DiAnda-Lopes would seem to agree. Chief Lowden promoted her in order from the place she earned in competitive tests.

"He didn't have to skip over anyone to get to me," she says.

"If you hadn't been the first, you'd still be there," a friend told Sutton long ago.

Somewhere inside Ann Sutton lives an arson detective who, I predict, will one day realize that long-delayed dream.

Her courageous pursuit opened the door through which Capt. DiAnda-Lopes walked a quarter-century later.

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Copyright © 1982, 2001, 2010 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 41-year Nevadan, editor of and; and former chair of the City of Reno's Citizens Cable Compliance Committee, He is producer of Nevada's annual César Chávez Day celebration and serves as second vice-president, political action chair and webmaster of the Reno-Sparks NAACP. As always, his opinions are strictly his own. E-mail

Barbwire by Barbano premiered in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune on Aug. 12, 1988, and has originated in those parts ever since. Tempus fugit.

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