Family, friends, fellow Air Force officers and firefighters of all types gathered in Sumter on Saturday to pay tribute to the life and career of Chief Don Spitzer, the longest-serving fire chief in Department of Defense history.
A Sumter resident …
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A Sumter resident after retiring from Shaw Air Force Base, Spitzer died Jan. 8 while visiting family in California. He was 85.
Spitzer served a total of 57 years in U.S. Air Force fire services - the first 26 on active duty and then an additional 31 years in civil service.
After beginning his civil service firefighting career at Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Alabama, Spitzer and his family moved to Sumter and Shaw in the late 1970s. He served more than 25 years as fire chief with the Shaw Fire Department before retiring in 2005.
Four former Shaw Air Force Base colleagues - including two base commanders - spoke Saturday at the funeral with Fire Department Honors at First Church of God, 1835 Camden Highway.
"Chief," as many called him at Shaw, was described as a straight talker, an unparalleled leader, a take-charge type person and a legend in fire services.
"Chief Spitzer was a firefighter's firefighter," said Ret. Col. Ed Henson, a former base commander at Shaw who worked directly with Spitzer.
Henson referenced the oath all firefighters take to run into harm's way when everyone else is running out.
"They do what they do because that is what is ingrained in their hearts," Henson said. "And I saw that with Chief on every response we ever took together. His loyalty was unwavering."
The Rev. Tony Gomillion, who led the beginning and end of the service, was a former member of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw.
He described Spitzer as a courageous and brave hero. Gomillion said Spitzer was beloved for his fun-loving and outgoing personality, and many described him as spontaneous, cantankerous, optimistic and caring.
Another former base commander, Ret. Col. Frank Destadio, said Chief Spitzer was one of the first people to greet him when Destadio arrived at Shaw in 1987.
A couple days later, Destadio visited Spitzer in the fire chief's office. Destadio described how Spitzer talked with him about a desk plaque he had that he called the Firefighter's Motto. The motto included "the desire to serve," "the ability to perform" and "the courage to act."
Destadio said he and Spitzer discussed those values for a while, and then Chief gave him the plaque.
"He picked it up and said, 'Here, you take this,'" Destadio recalled. "He said, 'If you learn what this really means, someday it will make you a better officer.'"
Destadio said he kept it for the remainder of his Air Force career, and he still has it on his desk at home.
Destadio closed his remarks by paying tribute to Spitzer.
"Chief, you're my hero," Destadio said.
Upon his retirement in 2005, the Air Force awarded Spitzer its Outstanding Civilian Career Service award. At that time, he also received a congratulatory letter from then-President George W. Bush.
Also described as a loving husband, Spitzer was married 64 years to his wife, Peggy, before she passed away in 2014.
Spitzer is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His burial will be held at a later date in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, with full military honors.
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