Former East Lake Fire Chief Tom May, left, receives an honorary fire ax from Chief Tom Jamison upon his retirement in September.
PALM HARBOR – Growing up in New York City, Tom May was the kid who used to wave to fire trucks passing him by on the street.
At different times, he watched as firefighters fought to save his elementary school and a friend’s house. He looked up to his father, an NYPD police officer and firearms instructor who told him to be a firefighter.
“Don’t be a cop, be a firefighter,” May said was his father’s advice. “You’ll be more respected.”
May, now 55, was just 16 when the family moved from Brooklyn, N.Y. to East Lake. As a sophomore at Tarpon Springs High School, he began volunteering at the newly-formed East Lake Fire Rescue where he was allowed to go out on calls and handle all the responsibilities of a firefighter, except for driving the truck.
“I grew up wanting to make a difference and help people,” May said. “I don’t think there’s a greater pleasure than that. It’s good to see someone who was in dire distress write you a thank-you letter or come to a board meeting to thank you.”
May retired, for the second time, from the East Lake Fire Rescue after nearly 40 years of service in September and was awarded an honorary fire ax from Chief Tom Jamison to thank him.
The first time he accepted an early retirement package as a result of the fire rescue downsizing. He hung up his uniform and eventually took a 22,000-mile road trip to Alaska where he went ice kayaking, deep-sea fishing and seaplane flying.
“It was my Forrest Gump moment,” May said. “I think I wanted to get out and see the world.”
When he returned home, he ran for a seat on the East Lake Fire Commission and won with 72 percent of the vote. He resigned from the position two years later to help the fire department while they realigned senior staff. While there, he earned the title of assistant chief and then retired again after his 16-month contract ended.
“It was time for me to move on,” May said. “After giving so much time to the East Lake area, I want to experience what else is out there in fire service.”
While May would enjoy staying close to family and friends in East Lake, he understands that the search for another job will likely take him out of the Tampa Bay area. He’s applied for several senior management positions in other fire departments and hopes to bring his experience and training to another community.
He’s coached Little League teams, served in the Navy, helped with fundraising initiatives as an East Lake High School Baseball Boosters board member, spent many hours volunteering at a local homeless shelter, and driven the bus to and from activities for Highest Praise Family Church. In the end, his greatest passion is fire rescue and safety.
Wherever he ends up, May said, he’ll proudly display his honorary fire ax in his office and serve with the same gusto he did in his various positions at East Lake Fire Rescue.
“I’m too young to call it quits and sit around and do nothing,” May said.