Today, Alexandria marks the beginning of AG, or the era of After Gower. James T. "Jim" Gower officially retires today as Deputy Chief, Alexandria Fire Department.
It concludes a 39-plus years firefighting career and the tenure of one of the longest serving members in the department's history. That fact did not go unnoticed Monday as more than 100 admirers packed the ballroom of the Holiday Inn on Eisenhower Avenue to pay tribute to the man and his career as well as recall old memories.
Accolades and gifts came not just from Alexandria and not just from the city fire department, but from Fairfax County, Arlington County, the Metropolitan Airport Authority departments, as well as past chiefs and just plain friends. As Michele R. Evans, Assistant City Manager, put it, "Chiefs come and go. But Jim Gower has been with us forever."
She told the audience, "The City of Alexandria has been extremely fortunate. Jim Gower has been there whenever things have gone wrong. He loves his work. He loves this city."
Perhaps one of the most emotional moments occurred when Callie M. Terrell, administrative assistant to the chief, sang an a cappella version of "That's What Friends Are For." As Terrell noted, she and Gower had worked together for 33 years. But, "He is not my co-worker," she emphasized. "He is my brother."
Serving as master of ceremonies for the two-plus hour tribute luncheon was Robert Luckett, chief deputy, fire marshall. He presented Gower with a fire engine red "crying towel" in case the proceeding got too tear jerking.
Then, remembering Gower's and the department's involvement with the attack on the Pentagon, September 2001, Luckett presented Gower with a shadowbox photo of the Pentagon that day accompanied by a piece of the damaged structure and other mementos.
Various speakers emphasized how Gower had not only served as their mentor but also how he brought compassion and understanding to his job. Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris told the friends who gathered, "The main thing about Jim is that he is truly a gentleman's gentleman. My transition to chief here could have been difficult. But it wasn't because of Jim Gower."
Gower served as interim chief prior to the hiring of Chief Thomas Hawkins and again between Hawkins and Mesaris. He has served under seven Alexandria fire chiefs throughout his career.
Gower is also credited with building a strong working relationship between the city's fire and police departments.
"In my mind Jim Gower is a really big deal," said Deputy Police Chief David Baker.
"Jim Gower always bridged the gap between the police and fire departments. He represents how public safety agencies in any city should operate," Baker stressed. Then he presented Gower with an honorary police ID card and police ID pins to the 2005 inaugural.
THROUGHOUT THE program, speaker after speaker attested to Gower's grasp of problems in both practical and human terms.
"I appreciate James Gower because he has always been gracious and goes out of his way to help others. Compassion is a quality that springs from within. And Jim Gower has it," said Jane Malik, the department's public information officer.
There were accolades for his wife of 35 years, Sharon, who was described as the "perfect firefighter's wife. Without strong family support we can not do our jobs effectively," Luckett stressed.
Attending the event were Gower's parents, now both in their 80's and having recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. He anticipates one of the benefits of his retirement to be visiting them more often at their farm in western Maryland where he grew up.
In addition to his wife and parents, Gower was surrounded by a host of family members including his daughters, their families, his sisters and grandchildren.
"My family is a tremendous example of how to live," Gower told the crowd when he came to the microphone. "I actually have two families. Because the fire department is also my family.
"I don't know if anybody deserves the honor I have been paid here today. But I really appreciate it."
THE PROGRAM BEGAN with two presentations explicitly requested by Gower, according to Luckett. One was the presentation of the colors by the department's recently reconstituted Color Guard. The other was a selection of songs by the City Chorus.
At each attendees' place was a chocolate bar specially wrapped for the occasion. The front bore a picture of Gower with his official retirement date of July 1, 2004.
On the back was a special listing of retirement nutrition percentages. They were: Sleeping Late 25 percent; Traveling 25 percent; Napping 25 percent; Spend Time With Family 25 percent; and One Happy Retirement: 100 percent.
The Gowers recently moved from their long-time home in Manassas to a townhome in the new development of Belmont Bay Town Center on the Occoquan River just beyond Woodbridge. They also acquired their first boat which Gower explains, "Is docked just 200 feet from the house."
Prior to Monday's party he pointed out, "I'll still be on the job right up to the last day." There was little doubt in anyone's mind about that as they prepared to cut the cake bearing an image of a young Jim Gower in full firefighting gear with the dates 1965-2004.