Sometimes called “Mr. Morgan Hill,” Moreno was a community-minded man who kept the town safe and peaceful for more than three decades.
Moreno was born in San Francisco on Oct. 11, 1920, to Spaniards Manuel and Maria Moreno, who came to California in the early 1900s. As a young boy, he and his two sisters grew up in the city of Santa Clara while his family worked the region’s orchards. During John’s high school years, his father would take him out of class to work in the orchards of Almaden Valley. The Moreno family’s dream was to own a prune farm, and in 1938 they achieved the goal with a 12-acre property on Hale Avenue in Morgan Hill’s Madrone district.
One day, while working the local orchards, Moreno met Ellen Oberg, who later became Elena Moreno.
“We met in an apricot orchard in what’s now Coyote Valley,” Elena said. “When I was 16, I was working on a ranch and his mother and sisters were working there, too. And then, suddenly there was this mysterious long, stringy fellow who rode in on the truck that brought boxes for fruit. And he came up and talked to his mother and looked at me. We first met then, but we each were interested in other people so we didn’t get together for a while.”
Elena remembers her attraction to the 6-feet-4 inches tall John – especially his rugged good looks and outgoing personality. “He was so different from everyone I knew,” she said. “He had a beautiful voice. He could sing. Practically on our first date, he sang to me. He sang ‘Maria Elena’ to me and called me ‘Elena,’ even though my name is Ellen, a Swedish name.”
Elena and John married in 1942. As a newly wedded young man during the World War II years, John worked as a machinist in San Francisco. He also got his first taste for his future career during this time. “I really got interested in law enforcement during World War II when I became reserve policeman,” he told Calvin Chick, a Morgan Hill Dispatch reporter for an article published in 1977.
In 1945, John took the required examination and applied to the San Jose and Morgan Hill police departments. Both cities offered him jobs, but he chose Morgan Hill because he believed the small town was a better place to raise his family. Over the years, the Morenos had three children – sons Glen and Stephen Kim and daughter Candy.
The young cop worked hard because the department had only two employees – Chief Frank Lindsay and John Moreno himself. Elena remembers the low-tech method the Morgan Hill public got police assistance back then.
“Down at the corner of Monterey and Second streets, there was a light-globe in the middle of the intersection,” she explained. “And when that light came on, it meant that the central telephone office had a police call. And John would see that light, go to the telephone department, find out what the problem was, and go off on whatever emergency there was.”
In 1950, John considered leaving the tiny department because he didn’t see much career growth for him there. He applied to the California Highway Patrol and the Salinas Police Department, and was offered a job as a sergeant at Salinas.
“After careful consideration, Moreno accepted the sergeant position,” Chick wrote in his article. “But before he could leave, the Morgan Hill Council asked him to become police chief because Lindsay had resigned.”
Over the years, John gained an esteemed reputation as the head peace officer in Morgan Hill. Citizens nicknamed him “the Big Spaniard” for his height. “He was the tallest man in town,” Elena said.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Morgan Hill developed a national reputation as a speed trap – thanks to John’s diligent enforcement. “A catalyst for the strict adherence to law appeared when a mayor was killed by a speeding car while trying to cross the street,” wrote Carol Holzgrafe in a 2003 Morgan Hill Times article about John Moreno. “Highway 101 came directly through downtown and the police were trying to keep highway traffic from wreaking havoc on pedestrians and motorists.”
Under John’s watch, the farming community remained relatively crime free, but there were occasional moments of excitement. One time, John heard on the radio that four armed robbers had just stolen money from the Belmont Racetrack. When they came speeding through Morgan Hill, the cop caught them all by shooting out the rear tires of their get-away car. And one arrest of a famous 1950s TV celebrity caused great trauma for John’s son, Glen.
“I just arrested Red Ryder,” John told his 5-year-old boy one afternoon. The cowboy hero had been caught speeding through town in a Cadillac convertible with an open bottle of bourbon beside him. “The actor might still have got off … except that he uttered those immortal words, ‘Officer, do you know who I am?’ ” Holzgrafe wrote.
John continued his police officer education over the years, graduating from the FBI Academy in 1956 and taking local training courses to keep himself up to date on new laws and procedures, Elena remembers. He also taught police science classes at San Benito Junior College, which later became Gavilan Community College.
John Moreno died on Oct. 23, 2003. More than 200 local citizens paid tribute to his life and civic career at a special memorial service at the Morgan Hill Community Center. Retired police officer Leonard Long said of John, “He will always be my chief. It is truly an honor to have this man as part of my life.”