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Rosa Salter Rodriguez | The Journal Gazette
The Fort Wayne Fire Department honored Capt. Ron Hamm, who is retiring after 45 years.

For 45 years of service, city firefighter gets send-off

– Saturday afternoon, the Fort Wayne Fire Department gave a send-off to a one-of-kind guy.

Officially in his first day of retirement, Capt. Ron Hamm greeted more than 80 fellow firefighters and their families after hanging up his boots on a lifelong career in the city’s fire service.

In a low-key ceremony, Fire Chief Amy Biggs handed Hamm his official “retired” ID card and his 45-year pin.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see another 45-year guy around here again,” she said.

In a career that began Dec. 27, 1968, Hamm filled every role in the department except battalion chief and fire chief, Biggs said.

He served as a combat firefighter and station head. He managed the apparatus shop. He worked in the fire prevention bureau and was the face of the department to the media for a time.

For several years, he trained recruits at the fire academy.

“He’s trained just about everyone in the department now. Including me,” Biggs said.

And, Hamm was on the scene at many of the city’s biggest fires and disasters.

He was there for the St. Mary’s Catholic Church fire in 1993, when a rainy day’s lightning turned one of the city’s downtown landmarks into a conflagration. It toppled the steeple of the church and left only a charred shell.

Hamm recalled the moment that resulted in some of the day’s most memorable images – of firefighters helping to carry out pieces of the interior.

“When it looked like we were going to lose the building, … I remember telling them, ‘If the ceiling starts falling down, I don’t care if it’s Jesus Christ himself telling you, you leave it and get yourself out,’ ” he recalled.

“And the ceiling did fall in. … We were just fortunate that we didn’t get anybody hurt, and we were able to save a lot of the items.”

In 1982, Hamm worked the flood that earned Fort Wayne the nickname “The City That Saved Itself,” when the department was evacuating residents and patrolling levees. He worked the Hanna-Creighton tire fire in 1997 and was on the scene when a small plane crashed into Sam’s Club on Lima Road in 1994.

In 2005, Hamm was off duty when a car struck a tree near his home and burst into flames. He was able to pull passenger Mary C. Spenn, 87, out of the vehicle. She lived to be 95.

In one of those twists of fate that sometimes befall those who do the right thing, Spenn’s stepson, Harrold Spenn, lives across the road from Hamm’s farm.

“We got to be close friends, and I even went to his house a couple of times for Easter,” he said. “I’ve shared my peach crop with him.

“I didn’t know who she was, though, when I was taking her out of the car.”

Hamm said through the years, he’s always tried to treat every call as though it were his own home or his own relatives needing help. He’s seen his share of fatal fires, when kids’ lives were lost.

“One year we had 14 fatalities and 11 of those were kids,” he said. But then he brightens. Right after that, he said, the Indiana legislature passed a statewide requirement for smoke detectors.

Hamm said he decided to retire because “66 isn’t exactly the age the new performance-based firefighter evaluation tests were designed for, and I can tell you that from personal experience.”

The last few weeks, when he took accumulated vacation time, were a nice change of pace. Usually, around the holidays, there’s always the likelihood of a tragic fire from overloaded circuits, a malfunctioning space heater or an overlooked turkey.

“People don’t call us when they’ve done something smart,” he observed.

Instead, Hamm got to work around his farm, where he grows corn and soybeans, tend to his herd of barn cats, play with his German shepherd and spend some time with his seven grandchildren.

“I’m still waking up at 5 a.m.,” he said. “Maybe in a while I start to sleep in til 6.”

Fire Lt. Kelly Hurd of Fort Wayne, who said he’s known Hamm for 13 years, called him one of the steadiest guys he knows.

He’s never heard Hamm get mad, Hurd said, and if there’s a fire department function, Hamm will be there.

“He’s like the kingpin of the department. He’s the longest running and has the most seniority,” Hurd said. “He’s all about tradition.”

And that includes send-offs, which, for Hamm, took place in the gathering room at the restored old firehouse at 1405 Broadway, now the firefighters’ union hall.

Festively decorated with flame-colored balloons, the place was stocked with a table of mementos, a cake, finger food and chocolates in the shape of hydrants, trucks, helmets and badges.

“I really appreciate it, and all the guys coming out,” the honoree said.

“A lot of them tell me, ‘You know my folks weren’t even born when you started.’ I’m hearing that a lot.”