Ryan Halla, MHPD cadet, carries the flag into the memorial

Family and friends tell stories about likable police chief who
also served as city manager and on City Council
Morgan Hill said good-bye to its elder statesman Friday when more than 200 people packed the community center’s largest room to revisit and enjoy the life of John Moreno, who died last month at 83.

Half the audience was made up of people who knew the almost mythical, longtime police chief and city manager, and were familiar with his reputation. The other half came to town after Moreno retired and were hearing for the first time of his daring deeds and of the deep respect in which he was held.

Family and friends told stories of Moreno who embodied strength and integrity so vividly for 65 years that he was called Mr. Morgan Hill. Over and over again speakers referred to him as “the big, handsome police officer in his big, black cruiser.” A large photo of Moreno looking stern and compassionate in his uniform peered out from the stage.

In a taped song called “Johnny Law,” son Kim, who could not attend the event, sang of Moreno’s single-handedly capturing four notorious bank robbers by shooting out all four tires as they sped through town – while dodging their bullets.

Moreno’s eldest son Glen was first to give tribute to his father.

“My father stood over the family and over the town, like El Toro Mountain, with strength,” Glen said. “The devotion to family came naturally; devotion to the town grew on him.” People, he said, laid their problems at Moreno’s doorstep. “He was part counselor, part priest, always at the beck and call of this town.”

Glen told of the day when his father sat down beside the then 5-year old Glen whose favorite television cowboy hero was Red Ryder.

“I just arrested Red Ryder,” his father said dryly. Apparently the actor who played the cowboy was speeding through town in a Cadillac convertible with an open bottle of bourbon beside him.

The actor might still have got off, Glen remembered, except that he uttered those immortal words, “Officer, do you know who I am?”

Morgan Hill’s international reputation – until recently – as a speed trap came in for comment and jokes, since it was Moreno’s insistence that traffic laws were to be followed.

A catalyst for the strict adherence to law appeared when a mayor was killed by a speeding car while trying to cross the street. Hwy. 101 came directly through downtown and the police were trying to keep highway traffic from wreaking havoc on pedestrians and motorists. The freeway bypass, finished in the mid-1980s, moved the danger elsewhere and the reputation went with it.

The chorus from “Johnny Law” summed up the ideal.

“Fast cars tried to lose him,

Women tried to flooze him,

Drunkards tried to bruise him

But these attempts would just amuse him,

If you’re driving down that highway, either North or Southwardbound,

You best keep to the limit, now that Johnny Law’s around.”

Others talked of Moreno’s concern for his officers, for his family and for his community. Glen talked of the toll police life – mopping up from grim accidents and personal injuries – took on the figure the public saw as towering but the family saw as loving and vulnerable.

Retired police Commander Leonard Long spoke, he said, for the “old guard” and clearly treasured the man officers referred to as “the big Spaniard.” (Moreno’s parents had immigrated to San Francisco from Andalusia, Spain.)

“He will always be my chief,” Long said. “It is truly an honor to have this man as part of my life.” He told of the time he stopped a driver from New York at Monterey Road and Dunne Avenue.

“The guy kept saying ‘they told me and told me’,” Long said. “What did they tell you, sir?” Long asked the driver.

“They told me that if I drove through Morgan Hill I would get a ticket,” he said.

Morgan Hill Police Lieutenant Joe Sampson, who just moved to town, said before Friday’s memorial he knew little about Moreno’s life beyond the broad details.

“I had heard he was one of the modern chiefs,” Sampson said. “But Friday’s was a very touching tribute. His wife and family were compassionate, almost regal in their demeanor and concern for the City of Morgan Hill. Any of us at the end of our careers would hope for such a tribute.”

Moreno’s daughter Candace Moreno Cunha guided the program, carefully introducing other speakers, Mayor Dennis Kennedy, former councilman Robert Foster, volunteer and builder Roger Knopf and longtime family friend Rose Hernandez. Son-in-law Gerald Cunha played “Danny Boy” on the flugelhorn. Jean Pinard accompanied Sandra Clark’s singing of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” on the piano.

The chief’s wife of 61 years, Elena, who shared her husband with the town she was born in, told of driving him around Morgan Hill on their recent anniversary, past City Hall where he repeatedly served as City Manager and councilman after his retirement. Through the downtown that had changed so much since he arrived in 1938, past the building that will become the new police department in 2004, past El Toro Mountain.

Six days later, on Oct. 23, he died, Elena said.

And, all during the memorial, parked outside on the community center patio was that big, black cruiser, now a “classic” Oldsmobile but still gleaming and in running condition – and ready to go.

More about the life and times of John Moreno can be found at www.morganhilltimes.com

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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