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Makowski’s secret to life: Seek the good; Longtime firefighter is in the US Navy Firefighters and EMS Hall of Fame

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After a career as a firefighter all over the world, Gerry Makowski was inducted into the U.S. Navy Fire Fighters and EMS Hall of Fame. The award was given to Makowski by Roswell fire chief Devin Graham on Sept. 30. (Submitted Photo)

Gerry Makowski has spent most of his 84 years looking for what’s right and good, seeking to help make things better in the faith that everyone wants the best. That outlook has served him well throughout his life.

Recently, Makowski was inducted into the U.S. Navy Fire Fighters and EMS Hall of Fame.

“It knocked the socks off of me,” Makowski said. “I got a call from Bill Killen. He said, ‘Gerry, I’m nominating you for the hall of fame.’ I asked him why. He said ‘You were always ready to do what needed to be done.’

“I’m a very positive person. A good friend of mine who became a fire marshal the same time I did, his attitude was, ‘I’m going to go to a fire department and find something wrong. I’m going to gig them for it.’ My attitude was, ‘Fire chief, what can I do to help you make this place better?’ I was highly respected everywhere I went.”

Makowski started life in the Midwest and ended up seeing the world.

“Marsha and I are from Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” he said. “We went to high school together. We met in our senior year, started dating and we’ve been together ever since. We were two years out of high school when I went into the military service for two years.”

He never saw Korea.

“Our company was sent to Korea,” he said. “It was 1954 and that was winding down. I was attached to the Air Force in Newfoundland. Marsha and I weren’t married yet. My father told me, ‘Gerry, it’s better to leave a sweetheart rather than a wife if you don’t come back.’ A week after I got out, we married. She had it all organized.”

As a civilian, Makowski found he had a talent for retail sales.

“I worked in automobile tire and accessory sales with midwest tire and auto in Milwaukee. I was successful at it. I was transferred to Waukeegan, Illinois. We had the snowstorm of snowstorms. I had a Nash Rambler and I put the tire chains on the night before. When I looked outside the next morning the car was covered in snow. The town was closed for a week.”

That’s when he was officially finished with snow.

“My mother lived in California,” he said. “She said we should move there. So we made arrangements and moved to California. I went into retail in California and was fairly successful. I worked with Montgomery Ward. From there I went into the fire department.”

A friend helped establish the seed of interest in fire fighting for Makowski.

“I had a friend who stayed with us for awhile,” Makowski said. “He was a firefighter. All we talked about was fire fighting and he piqued my interest. When a job became available in Woodbridge I applied for it, I passed the testing, and that’s where my career started.”

It wasn’t long before Makowski knew he was where he belonged.

“My first day in the fire department was July 5, 1966. The day before they’d had a huge fire in the winery. So my first day in the fire department, I learned how to wash hoses. At that time we didn’t have academies, you learned on the job. It was a 24-hour shift. The next day I came home and said, ‘I’ve finally found what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’

“I started firefighting at a rather late age, I was 33. My career started in the Woodbridge rural fire department in California. I spent five years in Woodbridge, got a good education from them. We had a lot of runs, it was a busy department. I really enjoyed what I was doing. In short order I became a driver-operator.”

Not one to watch the world go by, he continually educated himself.

“I went on to Delta College in Stockton, California,” he said. “I got my AA degree in fire science. During that time they had just started the EMS program in California. I took classes for that and I became an EMT. After about five years I decided there wasn’t enough room in the department for advancement, which I was interested in.”

Bigger opportunities arose.

“There were opportunities with the federal government,” he said.” So I applied and was selected by the U.S. Army in Lathrop California. Then I went on to Ruff and Ready Island and there I became the chief fire inspector. That was a notch up. After that I became the chief of Skaggs Island, a small department, not very active, but it was a fire department.”

Makowski’s can-do outlook carried him forward.

“A couple of years after that I was asked to put an application into the fire marshal’s program for the Navy,” he said. “There are 13 fire marshals in the Navy, 12 marshals and the head fire marshal. I was selected for the program, worked a couple years in Norfolk Virginia. From there we traveled from Iceland to Italy, Spain, London and down into the Caribbean, Rosey Roads Puerto Rico. I was later transferred to San Diego. That was a neat job. I could do all my activities in a day’s drive.

“I was pressured to put in for fire marshal’s job in Hawaii, working under Cinc-Pac Fleet, Commander in Chief of the Pacific. That job opened up the world for me. It was the highest rated fire marshall in the Navy outside of the director. I had an area covered from Hawaii all the way to Antarctica. It even went to the South Pole.”

Unfortunately, the career of his dreams had to end.

“I was in the fire fighter’s retirement program so I had to retire at 20 years,” Makowski said. “I was forced to retire at the age of 56. To me it is such a shame to throw somebody out with as much experience as I’d had. It wasn’t fire fighting work anymore, it was administrative work. But that’s the rules.”

Firefighting’s loss was Roswell’s gain.

“I read about Roswell in “Retirement Places” it piqued my interest,” Makowski said. “Christmas a year before I came to Roswell. We were impressed with it. It was halfway between where our children were. Our daughter lived in Cincinnati, and our son was in California. During that week we bought a home here.

“When I read on the front page of the paper here that they were going to scrape the rubber off the runway at the air port I thought ‘If that’s front page news, that’s a place I’ve got to live.’ We’ve been here 26 years now, we really like Roswell.”

Knowing that we see what we look for, Makowski’s life has been marked by finding the good in life.

“I’ve always believed in helping people. It’s against my grain to say ‘let’s find something wrong.’ Let’s find something good.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.