What's Up UA? - 1985-2013: Zuppiger, Hotshot Firefighter and UA Alumnus - The Explorer: University Of Arizona

What's Up UA? - 1985-2013: Zuppiger, Hotshot Firefighter and UA Alumnus

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Posted: Thursday, July 11, 2013 11:00 am

Garret Zuppiger, a University of Arizona graduate who grew up in the Phoenix area, was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots Crew firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Those who knew Zuppiger, a May 2008 Eller College of Management graduate who lived in Prescott, Ariz., describe him as generous, humble and deeply invested in his work as a firefighter. 

"It was almost like a natural calling. He was pretty new to firefighting, but it was something that he was extremely proud of doing," said Garret Picchioni, a close friend of Zuppiger.

"It was a combination of things – the work, the camaraderie he got working with the other hotshot crew members and being in the environment," Picchioni said.

Picchioni said Zuppiger was attracted to "nitty gritty work" and worked construction after graduating from the UA and, after joining the hotshots crew, during the off season. 

"The impression I had is that firefighting was something he would do for a long while," Picchioni said.

It was in 2006 that Picchioni met Zuppiger when the two were co-workers at the UA Office of Student Computing Resources, or OSCR.

Picchioni, who was one of the technical leads working in what is now called the 24/7 IT Support Center, noted that Zuppiger began as a receptionist and worked his way up to working in the office.

With strikingly similar names, the two formed an almost immediate bond. Picchioni's full name is Joseph Garret Picchioni; Zuppiger's is Garret Joseph Zuppiger.

Picchioni's immediate impression: Zuppiger had a kind and outgoing spirit that was as infectious as it was loud.

"He was very, very outgoing. He was one of those 'live life to the fullest, live life like it's your last day' kinds of people," said Picchioni, who graduated from the UA in 2012 with a degree in history.

"He never needed an excuse to go out and have a good time and to spend time with his friends. He's probably one of the greatest people you would ever meet."

UA alumnus Richard Reichenbacher also met Zuppiger and Picchioni about the same time, also while serving as an OSCR student worker. The three became thick friends.

Also, Reichenbacher and Zuppiger, along with another UA graduate, would come to plan ritual annual fishing trip to Rose Canyon Lake in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

"We would do a trip on the coldest, hardest day of the year, and it would be just miserable the entire time, but we had a blast fishing," Reichenbacher said.

Their January 2013 visit would be the last time Reichenbacher would see Zuppiger in person.

"Getting a hold of him in the off season was really hard," said Reichenbacher, who earned his history degree from the UA in 2012. "A lot of people see their best friends all the time and are very personal with them. With Garret, I would consider him one of my best friends, and when we spent time together we really enjoyed it."

During that last fishing trip, the three were trying to organize a deep sea fishing trip to San Diego, Calif. "It never came to fruition,"  Reichenbacher said, adding that one of the last photos Zuppiger took of them together was of Reichenbacher holding a tiny, 3-inch rainbow trout he had caught on the mountain.

Reichenbacher recalled an earlier memory, nearing the annual fishing trip in 2011. It was then that Zuppiger announced he aspired to join a hotshot crew.

"He really wanted to do it. He said he was training really hard. I think it was his next adventure," Reichenbacher said, adding that, long term, Zuppiger wanted to remain in Prescott and eventually settle down.

Mary Barleycorn, the senior business manager for the University Information Technology Services, knew Zuppiger's great aunt and learned about him when he applied for a job with OSCR. 

"He was just a great, funny kid; very gregarious, very outgoing, very likeable," Barleycorn said. "I think he made friends very easily. He was just a great guy."

Barleycorn said Zuppiger was full of jokes, and always working to glean a smile from his co-workers. Coming in for the day, he would often ask, "How is your day going?" and mean it.

"He's somebody you will remember forever. He strikes an impression and is a very caring person," Barleycorn said.

"If you needed something, he was there: 'Here, you have it.' It was just part of it," she said. "It's hard to describe that. I can feel it, but it's hard to describe."  

Chris Mathias, a UA information technology service management analyst, was Zuppiger's immediate supervisor when he worked at OSCR. But Mathias does not describe Zuppiger as an employee. Instead, she describes him as a friend.

"For me personally, Garret was definitely one of my favorites. He would just come sit himself down in my office and we would just talk about all different things: baseball, music, his garden, his girlfriend, and about things that were going on in my life," Mathias said, noting that Zuppiger served as a technical consultant.

"Although I was old enough to be his mother, I counted Garret as a friend," Mathias also said. "Garret was kind of a quirky, eclectic guy, and definitely did not fit any mold. He had a great love of life and of people."

Zuppiger, who transferred to the UA from Pima Community College during the summer of 2006, studied business economics at the UA's Eller College and was sharply interested in finance.

"He adjusted pretty well, and seemed very outgoing, well liked and well respected," said Steve Michel, Eller's academic adviser for business management and business economics. "The Eller community will miss him greatly."

While he and Zuppiger connected over business economics, Michel understood that Zuppiger's interests were far more expansive.

"He really wanted more of an outdoor-type of lifestyle. We spent a lot of time talking about how the economics major could apply to that."

Picchioni said that was true, and that firefighting had won his heart as a career choice.

"He's very much the outdoorsy guy, and he loves the responsibility associated with enjoying and respecting the outdoors," Picchioni said. "That was a very big part of him."

In fact, Zuppiger would regularly visit the Santa Catalina Mountains during his time at the UA. An avid hiker, he also enjoyed fishing, making an annual ritual visit up the mountain with friends for fishing each year, Picchioni said.

A UA English minor, Zuppiger's own personal blog mostly details his travels throughout Arizona, California and Oregon in his years after the UA. The narratives there reiterate that sharp environmental interest and a desire to explore much of the American West and Pacific coast.

During that time, Zuppiger wrote of traveling to the likes of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite; he reached the 12,633-feet mark at Humphreys Peak, the highest natural point of elevation in Arizona; also he trekked through Crater Lake in Oregon and Cinder Cone at Butte Lake in California.

About Cinder Cone, Zuppiger wrote on his blog: "A professor at the U of A says, 'It is beautiful, it is perfect.' He was right. Gorgeous hike."

Picchioni said he does not know why Zuppiger was so impassioned about his work and life. But Zuppiger – because of his way of living and connection with others – eventually changed Picchioni.

About his connection with Zuppiger, Picchioni said: "I know it changed me, and I think a lot of the personality traits I now have are from him and they will probably stay with me forever."

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