Former firefighter leaves love of people as legacy

Brett Norman

A procession of firetrucks will carry the body of Ralph Smallacombe to its final resting place Monday, and those who knew him say it is a fitting tribute to a man who was a legend in Pensacola's volunteer firefighting community.

Mr. Smallacombe, 68, was surrounded by relatives and 16 firefighters at West Florida Hospital's intensive care unit when he died Wednesday of natural causes.

"We're going to give him one last ride. He's not going to his grave in a hearse," said Patty Hodges, Mr. Smallacombe's daughter. "The fire department was his life. He went all the way with it. He would give his life for anybody, and now he's going to be recognized."

A fixture in the Ensley Volunteer Fire Department and an honorary member of the West Pensacola department, Mr. Smallacombe was honored numerous times during his 20-year career, notably for the rescue of an Escambia County Utilities Authority worker from a sewer lift station in 1987 in which a second ECUA employee died.

Mr. Smallacombe was sidelined from active firefighting by an injury suffered when he was thrown from a firetruck while responding to an emergency call in 1989. He nurtured dozens of firefighters through the ranks since, and that might have been his most important contribution, friends said.

"He was a great motivator. He's the one who brought me up through the fire service since I was 15, and now I'm the chief," said Ensley Volunteer Fire Chief Lewis Ward, 31. "I remember chasing the firetrucks when I was too young to ride, and he was always there. My dad was never around, and he was. I called him Pops."

Mr. Smallacombe's other great love was youth boxing. He and ex-wife Ann Tackett used their back yard to coach many at-risk children before opening a gym - the Pensacola Boxing Club - on Wright Street in 1974.

"His daddy was killed in the war - World War II. So he grew up without a father," Tackett said. "He really had a heart for kids. Especially, kids who didn't have daddies."

Service set Monday

Ralph Smallacombe's burial with full honors is set for Monday at Eastern Gate Memorial Gardens on Nine Mile Road. Visitation: 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Faith Chapel Funeral Home North, where services are set for 2 p.m. Monday.