There comes a time while writing when a trite cliché works best. You’ve heard this one before – “He’s done it all.” In this case, he has. In an almost 31-year career with the Knoxville Fire Department, Deputy Chief Mark Morris has, well, done it all.
About the only job he’s not held is that of fire chief, held today by a man in an office across the hall from his – a man he truly admires and respects – Chief Stan Sharp.
When February 2020 ends, so will his career at the only place he’s ever worked. He’s just 53. Retirement looms. Has he a retirement plan? “That is the burning question,” he said with a straight face, missing the pun. “I don’t have a clue right now.”
He was 23 when his KFD career adventure began. He was looking for a job and a career when he saw a classified ad in The News Sentinel one day. “The city was hiring firemen (today they’re known as firefighters) and the salary was $15,995 and that sounded great to me. That little boy in me thought it would be cool to drive one of those big red fire trucks.”
For 11 years, from 1977 to 1988, the city had not hired any firefighters. In 1989 he was one among more than 800 applicants. After the tests and interviews, he was selected and had 10 weeks of Fire Academy training. He was one of 24 graduates. He still has his first badge, framed in his office along with the other badges he’s worn.
Five years ago, Chief Sharp promoted him to deputy chief of administration. “He’s done it all” translates into being a firefighter, a senior firefighter, then a master firefighter, then a captain, an assistant chief and now deputy chief. On his right arm there’s also a paramedic’s patch he’s worn for 25 years.
Chief Sharp says: “Deputy Chief Morris has faithfully served KFD and the city of Knoxville for over 30 years. He has always been a hardworking, dedicated professional, an excellent example for other firefighters. He has many great attributes that make him who he is, but one of his defining characteristics is his character – he is a person of great integrity who always strives to do the right thing. Mark will definitely be missed, by me, by our administrative staff, and by everyone in our department.”
Fighting fires can be and is dangerous work. Morris has fought house and business fires, stood atop buildings fighting fires, pulled accident victims from cars and trucks, some burning, seen fatalities, helped save lives as a paramedic, and worked to save two babies from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) who did not survive. “That was very difficult for us,” he said.
Knoxville is his home. His father is the late George Morris, who owned Morris Drugstore on Washington Pike for 30 years. His late mother, Ruth, was a dietitian at what was then Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. His blended family includes four brothers and a sister. He and wife Tara have been married for 21 years. She is human resources director at Christian Academy of Knoxville (CAK). Their son, Jackson, 19, is a student at the University of Tennessee.
Morris and family live in North Knoxville and are active members at Corryton Church, where he serves as a deacon. He’s a 1983 graduate of Bearden High School where he played football, basketball and baseball. He tried college at UT but didn’t enjoy it. He earned an associate degree in marketing from Pellissippi State in 1988. “I had no clue what I would do with that degree,” he recalls. Then he saw the classified ad.
In his current job, Morris supervises the Fire Prevention Bureau, training, logistics, insurance services, radio repairs and installations, and the arson unit. He assists in finance and budget. And he chairs the five-person panel that conducts interviews for new firefighters. Very soon, that panel will interview some 200 applicants for 35 positions.
In his own words …
“…Being a firefighter is the best job on the planet! Unlike many of my fellow firefighters, some of us didn’t grow up dreaming of being a firefighter. Many dress up as firefighters at Halloween during their younger years, or pretend to be riding down the road in a fire truck while they ride their bicycles down the driveway. I actually dreamed of being a big-rig truck driver. I did eventually get to drive a big truck. Turns out it just wasn’t a tractor-trailer truck but a bright red fire truck!”
“…This profession is difficult and we have all seen things that we hope and pray that other people will never have to see. My bare-bones, elementary definition of what firefighters do is we help people and we fix things.”
“…Another integral part of being a firefighter is the camaraderie and lifelong friendships… The bond that is built between firefighters is deep and difficult to describe. When your job is the diametric opposite of what a normal human being is inclined to do, rush into a burning building with your crew while everyone else’s goal is to get out, you learn very quickly that you have to have your brother’s or sister’s back… It goes from a simple friendship to a whole new level that includes unbelievable trust, and the knowledge that your life is literally in your crew’s hands, and theirs in yours.”
“…I have strived to do ‘it’ the right way. When I was young, I tried to listen, absorb, and obey the generation of folks who started before me and became my mentors. In my move up through the ranks, I have tried to be both effective and affective. I have tried at each level of rank to be as good as I could be in my skills and abilities (effective), and I’ve also tried to be a supportive, positive influence on those who have worked with and around me (affective).”
“…As you move up, the issues and decisions you must make become more complex and difficult. I have tried to be consistent and encouraging, even when a decision is not necessarily what the person wanted to hear. I hope and pray that I will be leaving the department in at least a little better shape than when I started.”
On a small desk behind his main desk are family pictures and an open Bible turned to First Timothy. “I come in a little early each morning and it’s my quiet time. I read the Bible and study on my Sunday school lessons. It’s an important time for me.”
Now, back to the “burning” question about what to do in retirement. He wants to get back to fishing and the relaxation it creates. Maybe some more camping, plus jogging, golf, a little hunting, biking and hiking, and more family time.
And perhaps more Krystal-eating contests with son Jackson. Last year they each ate 10 burgers and tied. In the rematch Dad ate 23 and won. “I think Jackson maxed out at maybe 17. If he’s ready I’ll do it again,” he says. “We love our Krystals and being together.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.