One of Wichita’s longest-serving fire chiefs has died.
Larry Garcia served as chief from 1989 to 2007. At the time of his retirement he had been employed by the city of Wichita for more than half a century and was considered Wichita’s longest-serving city employees.
Chief Garcia died Tuesday morning at age 81.
Funeral services are pending, said Wichita Fire Department interim chief Tammy Snow.
He was born Jan. 12, 1936, and grew up in Stafford County. He was a 1953 graduate of St. John High School and in the small rural town was a notable basketball player and track runner.
After high school, he served three years in the U.S. Marines, according to Gary Curmode, fire chief at Copper Mountain, Colo. and who worked with Chief Garcia for more than four decades.
“He was a tremendous gentleman, articulate and very compassionate,” Curmode said. “He always went the extra mile and would bring any firefighter in that had a problem, offering assistance both personal and professional. He cared about his people and wanted them to come to work happy and leave happy.”
Chief Garcia’s start at the Wichita Fire Department is the stuff legends are made of.
In 1957, he had moved to Wichita and was intent on finding a job. He was actually on his way to apply and test for a post office position when he saw smoke bellowing from a house on his way.
He stopped to help and saw an elderly woman inside a house behind a jammed screen door, according to a Wichita Eagle story in 2007.
“Garcia put his foot through that door and got the woman out,” the story read. “The fire chief at the time came over to him and asked if he wanted a shot at a firefighting job instead of the post office gig he was about to get into.”
On June 1, 1957, Chief Garcia started as a firefighter. He then became a fire alarm dispatcher, chief fire operations training officer and a special assistant to the city manager and then fire chief.
Chief Garcia liked to tell friends he started at the bottom and worked his way up.
It was that gentle humor that helped make him a friend of Lincoln Montgomery, pastor at Tabernacle Bible Church. Chief Garcia was a deacon at the church and served for a time as chair of the church deacon’s ministry.
“He had excellent leadership skills,” Montgomery said Tuesday. “He was always a gracious, spiritually-minded man and a man of great compassion. As a pastor I would try to glean from him his leadership principles. He mentored me in leadership. And he would tell me that ‘If I err, I want to err on the side of mercy.’ I adopted that and still use that to this day.”
Through his leadership, the Wichita Fire Department:
Established a water rescue and recovery team as well as a high-angle and confined spaces team, a Hazardous Materials Response Team, replaced an antiquated radio and alerting system and added a computer system.
Over and over on Tuesday, friends and former employees described Chief Garcia as a loyal, fair and loyal.
“What I appreciated about him was that he was a fair person,” said Troy Franklin of Franklin’s Barber and Beauty Shop, who served as a firefighter with Mr. Garcia. “He took care of his fire department.”
Chief Garcia was considered one of the highest-ranking Hispanics in city government and his career was marked by some of the city’s worst disasters: the KC-135 tanker crash at 20th and Piatt on Jan. 16, 1965, which killed 30 people and the DeBruce Grain elevator explosion on June 8, 1998, which killed seven people.
At the time of his retirement, then-Mayor Carl Brewer called Chief Garcia a distinguished public servant. “Chief Garcia is highly regarded within the organization and the community. He’s going to be missed.”
At the time of his retirement in 2007, he was presented the fire chief’s helmet, an ax signed by his peers and a key to the city. The ax is usually only given to fire union members; the keys had never before been given to a city employee and are typically reserved for foreign dignitaries and well-known Wichitans.
He oversaw more than 400 employees and a $34 million budget.
The city of Wichita presented him with an Excellence in Public Service Award, which recognizes the work of outstanding public servants. He was a longstanding member of the International Fire Chiefs Associations and held several positions within that organizations during his tenure.
Chief Garcia told his department as he left: “Don’t ever tire of doing good,” he said. “That’s what you do. That’s what you’re paid for.”