Gardner: ‘It’s gonna be hard to wake up Thursday’

Rockingham fire chief, who started with department in 1983, retires

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Rockingham Fire Chief Charles Gardner embraces his son, David Gardner, himself a firefighter with the city of Burgaw, during an emotional farewell ceremony Tuesday at the fire hall.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Rockingham Fire Chief Charles Gardner embraces his son, David Gardner, himself a firefighter with the city of Burgaw, during an emotional farewell ceremony Tuesday at the fire hall.

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Photo gallery from Tuesday: More than 300 snapshots
Previous coverage
* May 1: Crump names Isler  new fire chief
* May 28: New fire chief has big shoes to fill
* July 12: Firefighting ‘a young man’s game’
* July 19: Training exercise ‘got real’

ROCKINGHAM — Not even Charles Gardner’s farewell gathering could go more than 30 minutes without being disrupted by a call for help. But it’s one call to which Gardner wasn’t required to respond.

City officials, family members and fellow firefighters took time Tuesday afternoon to say goodbye to outgoing Rockingham Fire Chief Charles “Chuck” Gardner, who will retire Thursday after starting with the department as a volunteer in 1983. Gardner announced his retirement in March.

Gardner disclosed publicly on Tuesday what those closest to him have known for quite some time. He was stepping down not because he wanted to but for health reasons.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Rockingham City Manager Monty Crump, right, presents Fire Chief Charles Gardner with his helmet, albeit cleaned up a bit, during a retirement ceremony Tuesday at the fire hall on Lawrence Street.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Rockingham City Manager Monty Crump, right, presents Fire Chief Charles Gardner with his helmet, albeit cleaned up a bit, during a retirement ceremony Tuesday at the fire hall on Lawrence Street.

The 30-minute ceremony, which included short speeches by City Manger Monty Crump, Mayor Steve Morris, Assistant Fire Chief David Mullis and Gardner’s successor, Harold Isler, was filled with laughter and no small amount of tears. City Council members John Hutchinson and Gene Willard, as well as Sen. Gene McLaurin, who served 15 years as Rockingham mayor, joined numerous firefighters and  city police officers for the farewell.

And there is regret and guilt, too — unavoidable, inevitable emotions when a career of passion and public service is taken away too soon.

“It’s gonna be hard to wake up Thursday,” Gardner said. “Some of you already know I’ve got some health issues. That’s why I’m leaving. I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I’ve let a lot of people down. I feel like I don’t have any choice.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris presents Fire Chief Charles Gardner with a plaque, a token of appreciation for his years of service to the city. Gardner is stepping down, effective Thursday, due to health reasons.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris presents Fire Chief Charles Gardner with a plaque, a token of appreciation for his years of service to the city. Gardner is stepping down, effective Thursday, due to health reasons.

Gardner said he had opportunities to work in Charlotte, or in western North Carolina in the cooler mountainside of the state, but nothing came close to working for the same department and city in which his father, firefighter Melvin E. Gardner, died on April 5, 1973 in the line of duty.

“There ain’t no better department,” Gardner said. “I’ve never had any desire to go anywhere else.”

Working in his hometown, Gardner said, was “a dream.”

Gardner said it was time to hang up his helmet and go home to “honor a commitment to this young lady,” gesturing towards his wife, with whom he celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary in June.

Those in attendance spoke about Gardner publicly, and to him privately, trying to assuage any feeling other than a job well done; mission accomplished.

“Where this fire department is today … Chuck’s had a big part of it,” said Crump, who promoted Gardner to chief in 2003. “He’s been a friend to the city. It’s a great sacrifice that you serve the public. Lots of times it’s a thankless job.”

Crump presented Gardner with his firefighter’s helmet, now retired from active service, and a watch. Isler thanked Gardner for three weeks of mentoring him and preparing him to become the new fire chief. He touched base with friends from his former fire department in Goldsboro and friend Capt. Julian Whitney helped forge a tool from the Chevy Tahoe Gardner drove with a firefighter’s helmet on top of a cement block that Mullis and fellow firefighters gave him.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Fire Chief Charles Gardner and his successor, Harold Isler, put into place a series of farewell gifts symbolic of Gardner's career in the fire service.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Fire Chief Charles Gardner and his successor, Harold Isler, put into place a series of farewell gifts symbolic of Gardner’s career in the fire service.

As Crump noted that Gardner worked with Isler for the past three weeks and shared his knowledge of the city and department, Morris jumped in and quipped that Isler “got it all.”

Then Morris, when it was his turn, turned serious.

“If my house were to catch on fire, this is the man I’d want coming after me,” Morris said.

Filed in: Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Public safety

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