Veterans Day is about thanking those who served our country, as well as their families whose sacrifices made that service possible. Phantom Fireworks is thankful for all those men and women who are serving or have served for this great country. We want to take a moment to acknowledge the devastating loss of two veterans who worked at Phantom for many years shaping the young minds and hearts of the company.
Johnny Corlew was a veteran of the U.S. Navy and went on to spend 20 years working for NASA as a Final Inspection Technician. Colin Langley, Regional Manager, says Johnny was the last person to close the hatch on Challenger’s last flight. “He actually loaded the crew onto the shuttle that day. He was the one who gave the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, the now famous apple. He told her to bring it back, and she told him to hold it for her because, of course, she couldn’t take that on the shuttle.”
Langley didn’t work with Johnny for very long before he retired, but he learned a lot about the kind of person he was. “He loved to give,” Langley said, “Johnny loved meeting people; he never met a stranger. He could talk to a stop sign... He loved to buy gifts for people just to see their face light up… He liked to brighten people’s day.”
Johnny and his wife, Audrey, co-managed several Phantom showroom locations along the east coast. “I remember the store he ran in Tennessee, and there was a fire. Actually, it was the sign that caught fire in front of the store. Johnny and his wife were managers there, and we were on the phone with them. He said ‘hey, we’ve got a fire at the store’. It wasn’t blazing or anything, so Johnny said ‘let’s evacuate’. You could hear Audrey in the background yelling, ‘Go back and get the safe!’” Jerry Bostocky, Vice President, reminisced.
Johnny was a good hearted guy who touched the people he worked with. Debra Vogelberger says he had retired from Phantom by the time she knew him, but he still made an impression on her. “When we had to close the Lanett, AL showroom, Johnny would come every day that we were closing that store and bring us jars of peppers, back scratchers, and different gifts. Going to dinner with him was always a treat because he had great stories to tell. He was really good people, and he loved Phantom.” Vogelberger said.
“Johnny was a utility person who, along with his wife Audrey, opened several Phantom showrooms in Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama,” said Bruce J. Zoldan, President & CEO of Phantom. “Johnny was a patriot, a good friend, and anywhere we sent Johnny, we could count on Phantom having a first class ambassador representing us. We will all miss Johnny.”
Jesse Barrera served as a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force. After the Air Force, Jesse had been in the fireworks business for many years before working for Phantom. He had been friends of Phantom for many years. Rick Tapper, Michigan Tents Regional Manager, said Jesse was a one-of-a-kind person. “He was very social - he talked to everybody. He and I would go out looking at sites and stop somewhere to eat. We were having lunch one day at McDonald’s, and I go, ‘let’s go, Jesse,’ and I went out to my car, and he wasn’t following me. After 10 minutes, I went back in, and he was sitting at this table with 15 people all just talking. That’s just the kind of person he was - very open and warm hearted,” Tapper said.
Even after he retired from Phantom, Jesse would come help set up new showrooms and attend corporate meetings. Jessi Dragoiu, Purchasing and Product Development Manager, remembered how hardworking and patriotic Jesse was.
“When we were setting up new stores, he was always the hardest working person there, which was funny, because we would have 20-year-old men helping us set up the store, and Jesse would literally be running circles around them. His main concern in every new store was always ‘do we have an American Flag, do we have a flag pole’ because he was super patriotic and loved representing America. I think part of the reason he loved fireworks so much is because it’s the greatest way to celebrate the birth of our country.”
Many people who were close to Jesse said he was a good reminder as to why Phantom sells fireworks and what it means to the country. He was remembered as the highlight of the season at managers meetings because he would start off the meetings doing the Pledge of Allegiance.
Jack Abell, Property Development, said, “The last gift that Jesse gave me was a scarf. It has all the colors of the American flag. Shortly before he passed, we used to exchange stories and gifts. Jesse truly loved the United States… He genuinely had a good heart… His family and his country were his main priorities. We liked to exchange stories about our kids and grandkids when we talked. He was one of those guys that really cared about people. Once he met you, he would remember you and everything about you.”
Jesse was a true family man. His granddaughter wrote “...He touched every single person he met, even if it was for 5 minutes. Just a simple hello is all it took. We would call him the mayor because he would just start talking to someone at a restaurant, a store, or walking down the street. He showed us how we should treat people... with kindness. He had so much kindness and unconditional love. So so much love, I can’t even explain.
“We were his world. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His daughters. His brothers and sisters. His nieces and nephews. And most of all his wife or his “girlfriend”. To him, she was his everything. He told my sister and I how they met so many times that we knew it like the back of our hands. He taught us the most valuable things in the world that we would cherish for the rest of our lives. The #1 thing that is the most valuable of all is family."
“...They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Our grandpa must’ve had over a billion words.”
Johnny Corlew passed away in June, 2019. Jesse Barrera passed away in August, 2019.
“The two of them were very loving of their country, caring, and they’re the type that make the military proud,” says Abell.
Bruce Zoldan, President and CEO, was close friends with Johnny and Jesse for decades. “Bruce treated them like family, so they felt a huge loyalty to him. Bruce treats people like they are his family, Johnny and Jesse specifically, because they had known Bruce for a very long time. They truly respected Bruce and the Phantom Fireworks brand. They were such patriots of this country that they loved celebrating Independence Day. They were great people. They will truly, truly be missed,” expressed Vogelberger.