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A Career To Be Remembered By A Whole City

A void was left in Alexandria by the official retirement last Friday of Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins Jr.

After nine years at the helm here, 15 years as Chief of Arlington County Fire Department, and a career that stretched over 42 years, he was lauded by colleagues, politicians, and friends for not only his leadership but also his values that form the core of that leadership.

As well wishers packed into the vehicle bay at Station 204 for his retirement party, one speaker after another reflected upon the impact Hawkins has had upon their lives, the profession of firefighting, and the City of Alexandria.

"Nobody has upheld the values of this City more than Tom Hawkins," Alexandria City Manager, Philip Sunderland, said.

"What a difference he has made for Alexandria. We have come 20 years in 10. It's a whole different department than when he came," said Michele R. Evans, assistant city manager for Council Relations and Administration.

"This is a bittersweet day. We are saying goodbye to a very strong leader. And, what is unique about Tom's service here is the experience of Sept. 11. When he looks back over his career he will remember he and the entire department were up to the challenges of that day," Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley said.

That effort was recognized by Arlington County Fire Chief Ed Plaugher and Battalion Chief Shawn Kelley when they presented Hawkins with two plaques honoring his and the department's service on 9/11. "It's all about the legacy you are leaving," was their message.

ACCOMPANYING THE MANY ACCOLADES, Hawkins also received a host of gifts, both serious and lighthearted. Three of the most poignant were a an old firebox, number 134, which used to hang on a telegraph pole in the City, a framed shadow box filled with symbols representative of his position as Fire Chief, and a hand painted piece of slate from the roof of the original Station 204 firehouse.

Beverly Steele, special projects coordinator, City Manager's Office, in presenting the firebox on behalf of former City manager, Vola Lawson, who was not present, read a note from Lawson that indicated she had purchased the box when they were retired from use and felt that it was a fitting remembrance of Hawkins' years of dedicated service.

The shadow box, a gift from the entire department, was presented by James T. Gower, deputy chief, Fire Operations, who also served as master of ceremonies for the event. It contained a partial sleeve from the chief's uniform displaying his rank and years of service, chief's badge, helmet designation, and other items related to the position.

In making the presentation, Gower acknowledged, "In the nine years we have been together we have gone from having kids in high school to being grandparents. And, Tom has always been someone I could turn to for advice and counsel, both professionally and personally."

Chief Deputy Fire Marshall, Robert Luckett, presented the freehand painted slate created by Glenn Rennick, a firefighter at Station 204. It displayed a firefighter's image with Hawkins date of arrival and retirement.

Recognizing Hawkins contributions, Luckett reminisced, "He was my college professor. He taught me an awful lot of what I believe in today. He's all about people. I only hope we get as good with the next Chief."

Hawkins has served as an associate professor of fire services at the Northern Virginia Community College and is a past president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association. He also was a program manager at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., where he directed their Executive Development Program.

JOINING ARLINGTON COUNTY, in presenting Hawkins with mementos, were representatives of the fire departments of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Assistant Chief, Mark Wheatley, whose brother is an Alexandria firefighter, gave Hawkins a shirt with their logo "in case he needed to impress any police officers while driving during his retirement since he had to leave his official car with the City."

Hawkins' contributions to the safety of the entire area was recognized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a citation from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. It was presented by Christopher Combs, FBI Washington, to acknowledge Hawkins' assistance to them in establishing "a joint task force and helping with investigations" following 9/11.

In answer to the outpouring of praise and gratitude, Hawkins told the audience, "Today, I need to thank a whole lot of people. This occasion will always be remembered by me and my family.

"I've been married to my wife Sherry for 35 years and if anyone should be honored today it should be her. She has put up with me leaving in the middle of meals and missing special occasions. That goes for my son and daughter as well."

He continued, "I couldn't have asked for a better staff and this City is very lucky to have a City Manager like Phil Sunderland. Any accolades that have been bestowed on me I don't deserve. It's all the others who make this whole thing work. Yesterday I was asked what thing I'm most proud of in my career. It's the fire and EMS staffs with which I have worked."

Then he challenged the local officials present. "Don't forget your fire department when you make decisions. This department has a direct impact on the quality of life of our citizens."

Joining his wife at the event were his daughter from Charlotte, NC, and his son, who lives Arlington, as well as his infant grandson. He closed by declaring, "I've spent my entire adult life doing what I wanted to do. I'm the luckiest person alive."

HAWKINS ANNOUNCED his retirement in mid October due to medical reasons. In May he underwent implantation of two heart stents. About two weeks after the operation one of them closed causing a mild heart attack on one side. It has been successfully fixed.

"But, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to continue and perhaps not be able to respond to a given situation. We have a whole set of medical standards that anyone affiliated with the department has to meet to remain active. Although, I am not called upon to respond to fires on a regular basis it is still incumbent upon me to meet those standards," Hawkins explained at the time he announced his retirement.

Those unrelenting standards were recognized last Friday by Vice Mayor William C. Cleveland, himself a law enforcement officer on Capitol Hill.

"I certainly do not want to see him go but I was extremely impressed my his reasons for making the decision. It is something special to see someone relinquish authority for the good of the system and community. That is leadership."