Geronimo Sheldon knew he wanted to be a firefighter right after he joined the U.S. Navy in 1971.
He was one of two sailors picked that would be trained in firefighting. The rest of the sailors were assigned to compartment cleanings.
“That first day I loved it. Four years of air crash and rescue, that’s what we did, if the plane crashes we would go pull the pilot out and put the fire out,” Sheldon said. “I think I was chosen to be a firefighter. What are the odds,” of that happening.
Sheldon would later return to Brownsville where he got a job at Union Carbide, joining Brown & Root as a firefighter for six years until the plant shut down.
A few years later, he took the test to become a Brownsville firefighter and worked for the Brownsville Fire Department for 30 years and later retired. But while working for the Brownsville Fire Department, Sheldon also served as a volunteer with the Los Fresnos Volunteer Fire Department at the same time.
For the last 42 years, Sheldon has served as a volunteer firefighter, assistant fire chief and fire chief for the Los Fresnos Volunteer Fire Department. He also served 34 ½ years as fire marshal for the city of Los Fresnos. Sheldon and Gene Daniels, the volunteer fire chief, trained new firefighters over the years.
“Whenever you see a volunteer firefighter they are dedicated; they’ve got a big heart. You gotta have a heart because you care about people, you care about your community and you want to help them out,” he said.
The 70-year-old Los Fresnos resident, whose sons are also firefighters including Jarrett Sheldon, who serves as fire chief for the city of Brownsville, has decided to retire after serving as a volunteer firefighter for 42 years.
“We are all volunteers,” Sheldon said of the department made up of 35 firefighters. “Nobody gets paid.”
Sheldon said his love for his community has kept him volunteering his services to protect its residents. “I love Los Fresnos…some paid firefighters say ‘what do you volunteer for, you don’t need to volunteer’ and I said it’s my hometown and you have to have pride.”
His three sons Jarrett, Jason and Derek became volunteer firefighters once they turned 15.
The elder Sheldon admits its going to be hard to let go considering he has been at this job for four decades. But he said its time for the younger firefighters to take over.
Earlier this month, he was recognized as the 2022 citizen of the year for the City of Los Fresnos. He was also provided with resolutions honoring him from Cameron County Commissioners Court, state representatives Erin Gamez and Janie Lopez. A flag was also flown over the U.S. Capitol on his behalf by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez and presented it to him last week.
Geronimo Sheldon remembers the first fire station he worked at in Los Fresnos had three little stalls. The building is now a lawn mower shop. The second station had four stalls and six trucks. The next station is the $1.7 million facility that opened in 2018 off Highway 100 and Ocean Boulevard.
Being a firefighter isn’t for everyone since it is a tough job, but the elder Sheldon said, “To me it was fun. I enjoyed it and I loved it.” He encouraged his sons to take the firefighters test and they all did and passed it.
The elder Sheldon has battled hundreds of fires during his career as a firefighter and the one that stands out is the Tide Chemical warehouse fire back in July of 1983.
“One day we were getting back from an ambulance call and we pulled up to fill the ambulance and I looked over and I see black smoke up. We all looked at it and then our pagers went off,” Sheldon said.
Once the firefighters got there, they could see the flames and smoke coming out from one side. It was going straight up.
A portion of the town had to be evacuated because of the dangerous burning chemicals. Firefighters stayed battling the blaze for two days.
Sheldon said his wife, Janet, has been very supportive throughout his career, because she knows he could be summoned to help fight a fire at a moment’s notice.
“Sometimes we would be barbecuing, and I would get a fire call and I would tell her ‘Don’t burn the meat.’ She became an expert. We would be going some place to a party or dinner and the pager would go off,” and Sheldon said he would have to leave to help answer the call, since all the firefighters are volunteers and you didn’t know how many would show up. “I would take off and tell her I would be back in 10 minutes, and it would be two hours.”
Jarrett Sheldon said just watching his father do his job inspired him to want to become a firefighter as well.
The excitement of the job and helping people is what makes it worthwhile, the younger Sheldon said. “Your job as a firefighter is to go in there and make someone’s bad day, good and try to fix it for them and try to help get them back on their feet. To see that and to see people live and survive through that and being a part of that is amazing.”
The elder Sheldon’s advice to individuals thinking about becoming a firefighter is to go the necessary training and that they make sure it is something they want to do.
Geronimo Sheldon admits its going to be hard to walk away from the job but know it’s something that he needs to do. “It’s time to let the younger generation handle it,” he said, but adding that if he hears the sirens of the firetrucks or sees smoke, he might drive out there to look.