Gary Neal Sharp. Where to begin? What has he done? Well, what hasn’t he done? How has he done it for so long. And why? And why does he continue doing it?
This Knoxville native, who turns 64 on Saturday, is the longest-serving volunteer for Knox County Rescue (formerly known as the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad). Try to wrap your arms around being a volunteer for 46 years at anything…. but especially considering the dangerous work that first responders do at any and all hours.
For the past 17 years Sharp has been a consulting fire protection engineer for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Officially, he joined KCR on Jan. 24, 1974. He was 16 and he had already completed every training requirement for full membership into the squad. At 15 he became the youngest to ever earn his state license (No. 1254) as an emergency medical technician (EMT). When he was 21, he graduated from paramedic school.
All of this actually began on a morning in September 1971 when his father, Neal, dropped him off at Bill Meyer Stadium. He was a member of Boy Scout Explorer Post 63, which was sponsored by the rescue squad. Emergency agencies were conducting mass casualty exercises with fire, rescue, police and other agencies. He was hooked. “Boy, it was a rush, the adrenalin was going and I was all in,” Gary recalls. “I thought to myself then – ‘I really like this.’”
Did he ever!
Here is a snapshot of his career highlights:
- Served KRC positions as unit director to Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads (TARS); training officer, shift captain, regional coordinator for TARS, heavy rescue team safety officer, heavy rescue team captain and various committees
- Completed bachelor’s degree in fire service admin from the University of Memphis, 1992
- Completed National Fire Academy’s executive fire officer program, 1998
- Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, 1998 to present
- Completed dual master’s degree programs in safety management and emergency management, May 2008, University of Tennessee
- Professional member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers; past president of the local chapter, 2010-12
There’s more. He has been an EMT/firefighter for Rural Metro, a firefighter for the Knoxville Fire Department, drove ambulances, worked for the Y-12 Fire Department for 16 years and was chief of the K-25 Fire Department for 10 years.
Why has he done this for so long? “How I’ve done it and why are rooted in an experience I had as an older teen. One particular night I was having trouble sleeping. So I rolled over in bed and opened the Bible on the dresser. I allowed the Bible to flip open to where I had placed a note card. The passage was Luke 10:25-37, the Good Samaritan. The Bible passage confirmed what was already inside me. I interpreted the discovery of the passage as a “calling to a different kind of ministry.”
This is also a family business of sorts. Wife Amanda was a firefighter for four years before settling down to rear two kids. After the kids were older, she became a high school teacher (business education and computer applications), which turned into a 27-year career. Their daughter, Erynn Neal Touchen, is a KFD firefighter, a KCR volunteer and a firefighter for the U.S. Air National Guard unit at McGhee Tyson.
Their son, Brady, is not in the fire business but in Information Technology at ORNL. Brady and his wife are the parents of Gary and Amanda’s two grandsons, 4 and 2, and to them Gary is “Chief.”
The family home is the Four Way Inn community in East Knox County. They are members at Lyons Creek Baptist Church and Gary has served as Sunday school director and Scoutmaster for the Boy Scout troop there. He’s always doing something. It’s a DNA thing maybe.
Each December KCR presents its annual volunteer awards. Perhaps the most prestigious award is for the “Rescue of the Year.” As KCR Chief Dr. Russ Frazier explains, “This award, voted on by all of our members, is always one that entails teamwork, experience, dedication, as well as multiple technical aspects.”
In 2019, KCR named this award in honor of Gary – the Gary Sharp Rescue of the Year Award. This year’s award was presented to the team that extricated two workers from a Pike Electric Company truck from Indiana that was headed to Florida on Aug. 30, 2019. Sadly, Gary was not there for the presentation of the award named for him. His father had just passed away and he was still dealing with that.
Chief Frazier adds: “Gary Sharp embodies everything I know and love about the Knox Rescue Squad. He is the example of selfless giving to his community. This kind of volunteerism is exemplary and Mr. Sharp is a role model that many young people can look to as they begin their own careers in public service.”
When will Gary’s work be done? He has no plan to retire from KCR. “I don’t think so. My wife’s paternal grandfather was a charter member of Blount County Rescue Squad and a Maryville fire captain. He died on an ambulance call with Blount County when he was in his mid-80s,” Gary says.
“I don’t see myself dying on a KCR mission. But contributing to KCR into my senior years is a priority for my future plans. It’s the calling thing.”
(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.com and if you have a suggestion for a first responder/emergency services professional we should feature, email Tom King or call him at 865-659-3562.)