There’s a lot of talk these days about what we’re missing in the fire service. And with all this discussion of leadership, of mentorship, sharing, caring and passing down values, traditions and the rich heritage of firefighters, Ithought it appropriate to revisit a very personal blog I wrote two years ago today, January 22, 2010.
When we talk about people who have influenced our careers and our lives, many people often refer to that person as someone who they didn’t realize had made such an impact on them until they were no longer in our lives. My friend Bob Newell was one of those people.
I guess I had taken Bob for granted. I had underestimated how much of an influence he had been on me, how much he was someone who’s friendship I cherished. His death, and these realizations really took me by surprise.
Although Bob has been gone for two years now, his memory and his legacy certainly live on. His name is prominently displayed on our Wall of Honor in the Erie County Fire Academy where I work. His biography is printed in the book that sits on the podium next to the Wall, describing his contributions to the fire service. We still use many of the programs and lesson plans that Bob created.
His photo is mixed amongst collages of classes and characters that hang on our academy walls. I still get a pit in my stomach when I watch our Firefighter 1 Boot Camp video in which he is interviewed, talking about the importance of training our replacements.
But those are just the visual reminders. I can’t speak to hardly a single leader in our county’s fire service without seeing a Newell influence in the way they talk about training, their attitude towards safety or just their love for this job.
Following is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at his funeral which was held in his second home: the Hamburg Fire Station. As hard as it is to think about Bob without missing him, revisiting these memories has the same effect on me that Newell always had. It makes me smile.
By: Tiger Schmittendorf
January 27, 2008
Since last Tuesday night – the night that tore us apart inside – and the same night that brought us all together; we have mourned the loss of Robert E. Newell.
As I was leaving the funeral home last night, I told Bev that: “Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate.”
Tomorrow is here. So, today we CELEBRATE the life of Bob Newell. It starts NOW!
To say Bob had a certain way about him – is like saying water is “helpful” in putting out fires. He was a real character.
You never had to wonder how Bob felt about a person or a subject. Did you?
His honesty was at times cutting – surpassed only by his caring for others. You always knew where Bob stood on a matter. And for that, I loved him.
In fact, Bob was a lot like the drink he enjoyed most: fine scotch. He was smooth, colorful and 100 proof.
Bob Newell loved to teach and students loved to be taught by him, young and old, experienced and green. I don’t know of many of our fire service leaders who never took a class from Bob Newell sometime in their career. His reach crossed county and state lines, career and volunteer.
Bob was most in his element when in the classroom or on the training ground. He exuded pride in training his replacements and took great satisfaction in teaching new recruits.
And he didn’t just teach them how to be firefighters; he taught them how to be great firefighters.
In addition to all of their requisite skills, Bob taught them discipline and teamwork. He taught them to respect their officers, their peers and themselves. He taught them that the road to leadership begins by being good followers.
Bob put them back in line when they stepped out, and he was never shy about offering a verbal kick in the pants where appropriate.
I remember him “booting” a new recruit from our second Firefighter 1 Boot Camp. He told him to pick up his “stuff” and promptly escorted him out the door.
But, Bob knew how to impart grace too.
He followed the recruit outside and coached the young man on the importance of authority and respect in the fire service.
After a time long enough to scare the crap out of the other students, Bob then allowed him to return and apologize to the class – and that new recruit is now a good fireman.
Bob taught many valuable lessons that way.
Bob was also adept at applying a gentle nudge just at the right time to boost his students’ confidence when they doubted their capabilities.
He wasn’t just a great teacher; he was a great listener too. Several of Bob’s students have since shared stories of how Instructor Newell listened to their troubles and then talked them down “off the ledge” of quitting a class or even the fire service.
He was a good judge of character and could tell pretty quickly if you were a good investment. If he saw the smallest glimmer of hope for your success, he invested everything he had in helping you reach your goals.
He never, ever, allowed anyone to fail themselves.
He taught his students about life in general, life as a firefighter and the importance of loving this job and all that it has to offer, good and bad.
Bob was a rare breed. He was both old school and cutting edge at the same time.
At age 63, and just a few years into his retirement, Bob was not one to slow down or cut back. He was always the one pushing us, always exploring new innovations and embracing new technologies and techniques.
He… was on top of his game.
His dedication to his family and the fire service were unmatched and his legacy will live on for years to come.
Bob Newell was a good firefighter, a great instructor, a class act and a generous friend.
And if you knew Newell like I knew Newell… I know you’ll agree.
Lastly I’d like to address Bob’s two families. For those of you who have been around the fire service, you know that being a firefighter is like leading a double life. There’s the life with your real family, and then there’s the life with us, your other family.
While Bob was integral to both of his families, I envied him for achieving success at balancing the two, always keeping his first family first:
Bev, Rob, Jay and John.
But we also know that Bob immersed himself in his second family, this great fire department, for almost 40 years.
Bob Newell was not only in the Hamburg Volunteer Fire Department – but the Hamburg Volunteer Fire Department was in him too.
You don’t have to look far around this fire station to see Bob Newell’s thumbprint. He left a lasting impression on physical things like the training room and the maze – and on the faces of the people who share his love for this fire department.
I know how proud he was of Hamburg because he spoke of your successes often. Bob was always testing people to be their best – as he knew we were capable of.
And he sure put his fellow firefighters to the test this week with implementing the very firefighter funeral program that he had fostered.
You have stepped up to the challenge and done an outstanding job, each and every one of you, together as a team, just the way Bob taught you.
I know he is beaming with Hamburg pride as you honor him today.
Bev, thank you for keeping Bob grounded and balanced by frequently dragging him away on vacation – while we were dragging him in a million other directions.
While there was never any doubt whether Bob had his priorities straight, you made sure he took time out of his so-called retirement to be with his other loves: you, the boys, their girls, and your grandchildren.
He was never shy about talking about his pride in – and love for – each of you, and how much he enjoyed every moment he spent with you.
Anyone who knows anything about firefighters knows that it’s not us who are making the sacrifices. Missed meals, birthdays and other important family functions are just more opportunities for us to do what we love.
The people making the real sacrifices are the people who love us – the ones who are left behind when the siren sounds.
Bev and boys, I know you made some real sacrifices with Bob’s dedication to serving his fire department and his community; but please know that it was not in vain.
He did more for the Village of Hamburg Fire Department and our fire service – than we will possibly ever realize.
Thank you for sharing him with us. Thank you for the gift that was Bob.
Bob liked quotes from famous firefighters, never taking into account that he was a famous firefighter himself.
I selected this quote from Edward F. Crocker, Fire Chief of the Fire Department of New York from 1899 to 1911; that I think speaks of who Robert E. Newell was:
I have no ambition in this world but one,
and that is to be a fireman.
The position may, in the eyes of some,
appear to be a lowly one,
but those who know the work
which a fireman has to do
believe his is a noble calling.
Our proudest moment is to save… lives.
Under the impulse of such thoughts
the nobility of the occupation thrills us
and stimulates us to do deeds of daring,
even of supreme sacrifice.
I said earlier that the celebration of Bob Newell starts right now. So, in that vain I hope to leave you with a smile, a snicker and as Bob would have it –a smart-ass remark.
Bob and I had pet names for each other. I called him “Newelldorf” because I felt bad that he didn’t have as many letters in his last name as I did.
He routinely called me “wise guy” or “smart ass” – and used them interchangeably.
Our secretary Debbie just told me Friday that he would ask for “Tigger” whenever he called the office. I didn’t know that. Trust me, I’ve been called worse.
As many of you know, I talked to Bob just a few hours before he passed away. We exchanged the usual “mutual harassment” and made lunch plans.
He ended the conversation by saying, “OK Wise Guy, I’ll see you on Friday.”
I said, “You’re buying and I’m eating,” which was how all of our lunches went.
This brief contact left me with a smile.
Later that evening, I experienced the privilege of being with his family and his fire service family as we started the mourning and remembrance process – the way Bob would expect us to: together.
This week’s events made me remember something that Bob had told me before he retired in 2000.
He heeded me a warning.
He said: “Schmittendorf… when I retire, I’m going to be the biggest pain in your ass… and the best friend you’ll ever want.”
Newell… truer words were never spoken.