By Angie Bado, TSB Publisher
As I run into the restaurant, a few minutes late as usual, I spy my long time friend and McKinney’s former Assistant Fire Chief, Frank Roma, calmly waiting for my arrival. Roma is sitting at a table relaxed and at ease, minus his uniform. As I ease into the chair across from him, he laughingly comments that I dressed up for the “occasion,” reminding me that he didn’t. At 55, his dark, wavy hair is threaded with gray, but his trim physique belies his age.
An avid cyclist, and lover of nature, it’s not unusual to find him entrenched in a 20-mile ride, regardless of the 100-degree plus heat. Although Roma confesses to loving a well-cooked steak and his mother’s recipe for spaghetti, he meticulously watches his diet, more often than not ordering a salad with grilled chicken. Tonight is no different – his choice is salad with grilled chicken. I guiltily order the same.
This is a different kind of meeting for us. It’s more personal. After more than two decades in McKinney, my friend is leaving.
For 21 years Roma was the assistant fire chief for the City of McKinney, until he retired seven months ago. In late August, Roma will leave his current position as interim fire chief for the City of Anna to take the position of fire chief in Auburn, Maine.
I have spoken with him many times over the years as a news contact for the fire department, getting details on a variety of news worthy accidents, fires and department issues. But this interview is about Roma himself – not just the person he is in uniform – but the man he is when the uniform comes off, as they say.
Many Years of Conversations
I admit that I have something of a bias as I conduct my interviews with him and write this story. Roma and his family moved to McKinney the same year my family and I did – in 1991 – and our children have been best friends for some 15 years. We’ve witnessed each other’s joys, pain and heartaches. We’ve given each other advice over the years. I think in some ways, after 21 years with the McKinney Fire Department, this interview is cathartic for him.
For years I’ve wondered how my friend has managed to juxtapose the trauma he experiences in his job with some kind of normalcy in his everyday life. How does one witness the scenes that he so often does on the job, put it in a mental box and shut the lid down tightly enough that some of the horror doesn’t leak into life like a slow leak from a water hose that seeps into the surrounding ground?
The persona that Roma portrays on the job is mostly one of stoic, detachment. “We can’t be a mess, crying and breaking down in the middle of an accident; we can’t become part of the problem,” he says. “We (firemen) have to be able to control the situation – to do our job. “
Through our conversation, it’s obvious that the very detached, stoic attitude he describes as necessary on the job has, to some degree, also taken a toll on his personal life.
“People often look at firemen and police officers and think that we are insensitive about that kind of thing (death). But every one of those incidents weighs on you, particularly if it’s the loss of a loved one through an accident or suicide,” Roma says.
“A part of what we do can carry on to other parts of our lives. I try to balance it, but being cold, calm and in charge becomes a lifestyle.”
Although the job calls for detachment and a certain amount of calculated coldness, I’ve witnesses the softer side of Roma – the man who pays for the meals of those unsuspecting diners at a table across the restaurant, the man who orchestrated the purchase of a new bicycle for a boy who got his foot mangled in the spikes of his bike, and the man who paid a house call to a family who lost their son to an overdose.
I’ve read the stack of thank you notes that Roma has received from families whose lives he has touched over the years. Those personal notes make reference to the “extra time” he spent with a family, the follow up calls to check in on a family who has lost a loved one.
“The men and women in the McKinney Fire Department are some of the most caring individuals I know. Our job is to bring order to chaos, but we did more than taking care of business,” Roma adds.
Making an Impression in McKinney
“When I think of Frank Roma I think of loyalty – Loyal to the people he serves, loyal to his superiors and the direction given, loyal to the community he calls home, loyal to his many friends and, last, but by no means least, loyal to his family,” Mayor Pro-Tem Ussery says about his friend.
Roma’s servitude is also evident in the things he has done for our community – serving on the Serenity High Board of Directors and on the Board of Directors for the Samaritan Inn.
“The opportunity to help support students who are in recovery pays dividends beyond the attainment of a high school diploma. These young people are our future,” Roma said while a member of the Serenity High Board.
Lynne Sipiora, Executive Director of the Samaritan Inn, also sees the servants heart in Roma. “Frank Roma served on the Samaritan inn board of directors for four years and truly had a heart for those we serve. He is a champion of the underdog and always found a way to help on a personal level. He’s a hero, but a quiet one who prefers to stay under the radar. He has made a difference in a lot of lives,” Sipiora says.
The man I call friend is also an intelligent, fun loving prankster who cares deeply about others and loves nothing more than to engage in a debate about politics (just ask Mayor Pro-Tem Ussery) or pull a prank on his kids, fellow firemen or his friends in the McKinney Police Department – I believe I recall a story about a donut on a fish hook? Ussery also says that Roma, “Unbeknownst to many, stands ready to become a member of the E Street Band on a moments notice.”
But soon his years spent with so many he knows so well will end. So what does Roma think about his years in McKinney and his move to a new section of the country? His dark eyes come alive when he talks about his years in McKinney.
“Part of what makes McKinney great now is that it does have so much influence from different parts of the country. McKinney is becoming a more diverse community, but the history that has taken place here is part of the DNA that runs through tomorrow,” Roma says.
“I love my community,” Roma continues. “Most people look at change and decide they either like it or they don’t, and sometimes you are the change by turning over the reigns,” he says referring, I believe, at least in part, to letting go of his job here in McKinney.
Elaborating more on the changes that have occurred in McKinney during his tenure with the fire department, Roma says that he is happy that he had the opportunity to have had a part in the evolution of the city, citing that McKinney has the opportunity to shape its future.
Making Sense of the Job
Our conversation shifts to Roma’s experiences as a fireman. He says there were times that he felt he could have done a better job, but there were other days he felt that he did things “spot on.”
“It’s sometimes difficult to deal with people when they’ve done something accidentally that has turned their life into a really bad day, especially if the individuals involved have caused the accident. People react differently. They are understandably upset. Bad things happen to good people, but sometimes people do stupid things,” Roma says. (We chuckle over the story of my pie catching on fire in the oven last Thanksgiving – laughing because, even though I did a stupid thing, I didn’t have to call the fire department!)
“Sometimes people feel that when they call the fire department, we will come and make everything better,” he says. “We can’t always make it better, but we know that we have to take action, do our job, and do what we can to assist people.”
Leaning back in his chair, Roma says his early education makes dealing with, and understanding people a little easier. “I was raised in the Episcopal faith, but growing up in Pennsylvania, I attended a Quaker school. The Quaker philosophy – ‘that of God is in every man’ – had a real impact on me, so I’m not in the judgment business. I’ve had to remind myself it’s up to me to serve, not judge.”
But the toughest part of his job Roma adds, with passion in his eyes, is dealing with people when they lose a loved one. It’s never easy, he says, but when life takes its natural course and someone dies from a disease or old age it’s not as traumatic as dealing with accidents and suicides. Roma says these scenarios are extremely problematic because the family is left to wonder why.
Reciting a story about an accident that occurred on Central Expressway some years ago, Roma says he experienced a moment of clarity that has stayed with him. “We were called to a fatality accident early one morning and as were removing the body from the car, I noticed the man had on socks that didn’t match. I’m sure he didn’t realize that his socks didn’t match, but maybe he was in a hurry when he put them on. I wondered what else he (the deceased) had left undone – what had he left unsaid? I realized in that moment how precious life is and how little control we have.”
It used to be that firemen had to be tough and show no signs of weakness, but in the 1970’s departments began to realize that firemen were showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Roma compares it to military service, but firemen deal with potentially traumatizing events on the job for the lifetime of their jobs. Today, many fire departments, including McKinney’s, have employee assistance programs where the department can watch out for the physical, emotional and psychological well being of their employees. Roma emphasized he felt that part of his job as assistant fire chief was to care for his people. “I’d stop in to visit my people to check up on them. In McKinney if someone has an issue, we work with him or her to get help. We do a better job today of seeing the fireman as a whole person.“
As he himself can attest, there was a particular incidents that proven to be more burdensome to firefighters. “When my oldest son, Tom, was little and we were living in Minnesota, I had dropped him off to play at a friend’s house. Later that day, we got a call that a state trooper, who was racing to a call, had T-boned a car. When I arrived at the scene, the car that was hit by the trooper was the same color and make as the car owned by our friends who were watching Tom. I got there first – I saw this car and there were two little blonde haired kids in the back seat and one of them was dead. At first, in a Nano second, I thought it was Tom. I was paralyzed for a brief moment, but then I shifted gears and began to focus on my job thinking, even if it is Tom, I have to do my job and help the others. That was as close as I’ve come to having a really, really bad day (on the job).”
Saying Goodbye is Hard To Do
As our conversation flows to a more philosophical nature, Roma comments that although there are definitely things that he would do differently if he were given a chance for a “do over,” he doesn’t have any regrets.
Without hesitation, he says that being a father to his three kids, Tom, Matthew and Meg, is his proudest accomplishment, elaborating that that role comes with much grief and joy, but being a father has helped him to grow up. Roma’s face lights up as mentions his kids and as he reminisces about his daughter Meg’s recent wedding.
“I’ve had a great life. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, exactly where I wanted to do it. I don’t have any regrets. I’m open to the possibility that the next half of my life could be something entirely different. Where I live has become as important to me as what I do.”
And different it will be as he steps into role of fire chief in a new city in Maine. “I’m in a point in my life where I’m willing to let go of a lot of the control and a lot of the expectations of what I think my life should look like. I can go anywhere in the country, do anything I want to and I’m open to that at this stage in my life, “ Roma says.
As positive and impassioned as Roma is about the prospect of starting his new position, he ends our conversation with this thought. ” I’ve had 21 of the finest years of my life right here in McKinney. Leaving the place where you raised your family and made friends that will last a lifetime is certainly not easy or without emotion. But having had a once in a lifetime opportunity to play a small part in the growth of a city that you love and call home – a city that where serving others matters – is priceless. “
“Frank represents the pillar of a community of which he is part. His presence will be missed,” Ussery says.
As many of us in McKinney have witnessed, Roma knows how to serve, he knows how to care, and he knows how to have fun. I, for one, am excited to share in Roma’s enthusiasm as he prepares to start a new chapter of his life. I am also sorry to see him leave and am saddened that another link between our city’s past and its future will be gone.
My friend, I salute you for all you have done for us in McKinney, Texas. You truly are one of the silent servants who will be dearly missed. Our loss is Auburn, Maine’s gain.
I know our friendship will endure – it will just take a little more work.
Photo courtesy of Frank Roma