City’s Senior Fire Rescue Chief Nominated for Lake County Community Service Award

When Fruitland Park Fire Rescue Senior Chief Thomas "Tommy" Lee Gamble joined the Fruitland Park Volunteer Fire Department in 1961, he was just 16 years old.

When Fruitland Park Fire Rescue Senior Chief Thomas “Tommy” Lee Gamble joined the Fruitland Park Volunteer Fire Department in 1961, he was just 16 years old.

Fruitland Park commissioners have nominated Thomas “Tommy Lee” Gamble for the 2014 Lake County Community Service Award sponsored by the Daily Commercial newspaper.

The annual award, which recognizes Lake County residents nominated in 12 categories, is also sponsored by the Lake County League of Cities, Leadership Lake County, Lake Sumter State College, the Chamber Alliance of Lake County and Lake Receptions.

Gamble’s nomination—for the Public Service Award—was 53 years in the making.

It started in 1961. And what a year: John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President in January, the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba launched in April, East Germany built the Berlin Wall in August, and the USSR detonated the biggest H-Bomb in history in October.

One more thing happened: 16-year old Tommy Lee Gamble joined the Fruitland Park Volunteer Fire Department.

Lt. George Fernandez, Fruitland Park Fire Rescue’s Public Information Officer, said Gamble’s family owned a garage in Fruitland Park. Tommy Lee could be found there most weekends and weekdays after school, Fernandez said.

Tommy Lee’s older brothers ran the garage. They were his heroes. They served on the Fruitland Park Volunteer Fire Department.

“That’s the way it was back then,” Gamble said. “We did it because it was our community and it was something we could do,” Gamble said.

One of those older brothers—Joe Grubb by name—had returned from World War II and served at various times as Fruitland Park’s mayor, commissioner, city manager and public works director. In his spare time, he raced stock cars.

Through his early teens Tommy Lee busied himself with odd jobs around the garage after school and on weekends.

But whenever the city fire alarm sounded—a surplus air raid horn fastened atop a telephone pole in downtown Fruitland Park—Tommy Lee rushed to the fire station with his brothers.

When the fire truck roared off—a 1941 Chevrolet the city acquired from U.S. Army surplus for a few hundred dollars—Tommy Lee stayed behind. He was too young. He helped clean the company’s hoses and fire truck when the older men returned, but it was small consolation.

“I always knew I could do it,” Gamble said. “I wanted to go.”

When he turned sixteen, Fire Chief Harold Davenport said he was old enough.

“I asked so many questions all the time they used to shoo me away, but by the time Chief Davenport asked me to join the department I figured was ready,” Gamble recalls.

Ten years later, Tommy Lee was one of the older boys and they elected him Fire Chief.

“By that time fire departments were modernizing, there was new equipment, and I had a lot to learn,” Gamble said.

In the 1980s, fire departments began to take on a wider emergency services role and Gamble had to learn it all over again.

Through the 1990s, between alarms Gamble managed the family’s garage business. In 1997, he joined Lake County Fire Rescue to advance his administrative skills and the Oxford Fire Department, which has since been incorporated as part of Sumter County Fire Rescue.

He earned the rank of Captain of the Oxford Fire Department. In 2001, Gamble sold the family garage and returned to Fruitland Park Fire Rescue. Two months ago he was honored by the city for 53 years of service.

“I always wanted to know everything there was to know about fire and rescue,” Gamble said. “It has always been a passion and I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to do it. If I’d been raised in a big city things might have been different,” he said.

As Senior Chief he still answers calls today, though the air raid siren has long since been removed.

“It’s funny,” Gamble said recently. “Mothers know about this, and kids learn it pretty quick. If a certain sound means something, sometimes you hear it in your sleep, and whenever it goes off your mind changes. That’s the way it was with that siren, it’s like that now with my radio. No matter what’s happening, when the alarm sounds, you hear it and go,” he said.

Then he smiled. “At my age, it’s about the only thing I hear real clear,” he said.

 

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