More than 1K pay tribute to Calif. fire chief who died of cancer
Garden Grove Fire Chief Tom Schultz died just two weeks after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic and liver cancer
By Susan Christian Goulding
The Orange County Register
FULLERTON, Calif. — His children remembered him as someone who always encouraged them to do their best. Colleagues mentioned his faith, compassion and level head. A fire service chaplain recalled his fastidiously organized desk.
More than 1,000 admirers – several hundred representing fire departments throughout Southern California – gathered Wednesday, Feb. 13, to share memories of Garden Grove Fire Chief Tom Schultz.
Schultz’s death on Jan. 27 stunned family members and friends, coming just two weeks after an unexpected diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic and liver cancer. The Placentia resident, 54, left behind wife Kim, two daughters and a son.
The two-hour service took place inside EvFree, a spacious church in Fullerton. Bright red against gray skies, dozens of firetrucks lined up outside – some of them having delivered bagpipers and eulogizers.
Schultz was well known in the Orange County fire service community – and beyond. Over 30 years, he climbed the ranks to deputy chief of operations for the Fullerton Fire Department – overseeing a consolidation of command staff with the Brea Fire Department. In 2015, Schultz joined Garden Grove.
Meanwhile, for 25 years, he trained hundreds of future firefighters as an instructor at Santa Ana College.
“Tom was a tremendous influence on my career,” Fullerton Fire Department Capt. Wade Fisher told the audience. “He pushed me to advance even when I didn’t want to be pushed.”
Fisher described Schultz as unflappable, even after he almost choked on steak at the fire station kitchen table. After Fisher successfully performed the Heimlich maneuver, he recalled, “Tom calmly said ‘thank you’ and just kept eating.’”
Garden Grove City Manager Scott Stiles noted that “fire chief is a tricky job.”
“You have to be part firefighter, part politician and part administrator,” Stiles said. “Sometimes, you have to make unpopular decisions.” Ever fair to all sides, he said, Schultz approached potentially sticky situations by objectively looking at the “memorandum of understanding” agreement between the city and its employees.
“For him, the MOU was a firm handshake,” Stiles said. “It doesn’t matter which perspective is more beneficial to you – what does the MOU say? I learned from that. Now I start with, ‘What’s in the MOU?’”
Schultz’s young adult children Andrew and Sarah took the stage to praise, through tears, their father’s devotion to family. “Mom lost her best friend,” Andrew Schultz said, adding that Tom and Kim Schultz were high school sweethearts married for 29 years.
“Dad was my biggest cheerleader,” Sarah Schultz said. “He taught me to be brave, whether auditioning for a role (in a school play) or pursuing my career.”
Daughter Marissa, who lives in Maryland, was unable to attend, having just given birth to baby Thomas.
Poignantly, Schultz intended to retire last September. But at the request of the city, he agreed to continue working for a while in a fire department leadership position.
“It’s been my deepest privilege to serve and protect Orange County for 34 years,” Schultz wrote in his retirement announcement. “It’s bittersweet leaving a job and the people I truly love.”
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