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After 30 years, not understood, not ashamed

Published April 27, 2007


Ever heard of Robert Tucker?

A tall man, about 6 feet, with glasses and a short black Afro sprinkled with age. He's lived in Tampa his whole life.

A spiritual man who goes to New Salem Missionary Baptist Church and ushers worshipers to their seats.

A helpful guy, he volunteers with the Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay program. He talks to kids after school about their homework, and their lives.

Maybe the qualities used to describe him today don't make him stand out in your mind. But if you've been around awhile, you might remember the more formidable title Tucker held - long before everything went wrong.

Tampa's first black firefighter.

It was 1968, about a year after Dick Greco became mayor the first time. The nation was embroiled in racial riots and, here, black people hadn't been applying for city jobs. Tampa started a training program, and more applied. Tucker passed the firefighters exam, and soon, so did other African-Americans.

In the beginning, fellow firefighters hid his boots and called him derogatory names. But he had too much going for him to let that bother him.

Other people in the community looked up to him. He helped a family get a heater for their home by making a few calls to a community organization. He'd go to schools and talk to the students about his job.

"It was almost like a novelty to see a black man in a car and in uniform."

He moved out of the projects and into a house in West Tampa with his wife, who worked for an airline, and their two sons. They later built a home in the Carver City area and rented out the other house.

It was a good life.

Greco resigned in the mid 1970s, and Tucker campaigned for William Poe in his successful bid for mayor. Tucker handed out fliers, put up signs and told others to vote for Poe.

Poe heard about him because the majority of firefighters stood firm against his bid. "I knew he was there, and I knew that there was a minority on the firefighters who was supposed to be working for me," Poe said this week.

But at some point, Tucker started having "problems."

He says he suffered from mental illness. He damaged a city car in a domestic dispute. He once stripped naked outside in front of officers and stood beneath the water from a dripping air conditioner.

Today, Tucker says he was misunderstood and took off his clothes because he didn't want police to think he was armed. He says he was scared and stood under the water to "baptize" himself and get closer to God.

He was diagnosed as a manic depressive and hospitalized. Nearly 30 years later, in his tidy, but tiny apartment off S Howard Avenue, Tucker lets a stack of documents and records tell the story.

On July 10, 1978, supervisors charged him with "neglect of duty" because he didn't come to work, although he was in the hospital for the depression. He had used up all his sick time.

The series of events that followed is complex. A civil service board reduced his dismissal to a 30-day suspension, but the city appealed, saying Tucker was in no shape to be a firefighter.

Poe heard about the firing.

"I questioned it pretty strongly," he said. "I wanted to make sure that they weren't picking on him because he helped me in my campaign."

Poe said his people couldn't figure out where the ultimate truth lay.

Records show fire officials were adamant that Tucker's long absence had become a problem. Also, a doctor hired by the city said Tucker's mental condition left him unfit for the stressful firefighter's job.

But if mental illness were the primary factor, rather than neglecting duties, Tucker says he should have been allowed to retire and receive long-term disability benefits from the city.

Then there was the $9,238 check issued after the firing for money he had paid into the pension fund. Tucker says he never received it.

The city has investigated his complaints in years past and concluded he did get the pension check. An attorney representing the trustees board for the firefighter's pension fund sent Tucker a detailed letter in 2001, saying that his claims were researched extensively. It also noted that Tucker had visited an accountant's office without appointment.

"Please cease and desist from contacting the pension office staff," the letter said. "No further staff time will be expended in researching this issue."

When all the dust settled, Tucker never wore a firefighter uniform again.

He and his wife divorced; he never remarried.

He worked briefly for the city's wastewater treatment department, but says he was harassed there.

He was homeless for a while, sometimes sleeping in his 1971 Plymouth Duster. He worked odd jobs: day laborer, dishwasher, temporary help at the port.

People misunderstand mental illness and assume that people like him can't be productive in society, Tucker says, but he's not ashamed of his past.

Today, at age 64, he lives on $800 a month from disability through Social Security. In the morning, he listens to the radio, he reads biographies and espionage novels and chats with friends. In the afternoons, he's a "foster grandparent" mentor for local children.

"He's a dedicated volunteer," said Lisa Smiler, director of programs for Seniors in Service.

Sometimes former fire chief Pete Botto sees him around town. They were hired at the same time and trained together, Botto says, thinking back. "Tuck was a good guy."

Still, he won't - can't? - let the past go.

On the walls of his home, he hangs poster boards with newspaper articles that tell of African-American and Cuban history in West Tampa and Ybor. His ex-wife, his grandson and friends smile back at him in color photos.

And documents detailing a battle that began decades ago are piled on the floor.

"I like to remember," he says.

[Last modified April 26, 2007, 07:39:16]

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