Farewell to a Friend
Fire Station to Honor Disabled Volunteer Who Had to Give Up
By LARRY GORDON
TIMES STAFF WRITER
voice is now a horse and halting whisper, its strength blocked
by cancerous growths in his esophagus. But when Samuel Morris
speaks about how the Los Angeles Fire Department adopted him
30 years ago, his emotions come through loud and clear.
“I miss it, just being there, just being with the guys,” said
Morris, 43, described as the department’s most loyal
volunteer, hanger-on and all around good luck symbol.
The feelings are mutual. On Sunday afternoon, firefighters
are holding a formal retirement dinner for the disabled
neighborhood kid who grew up to be “Chief of the 4th
Division.” The party is being held at Station 33, the busy
South-Central firehouse where Morris performed so many chores
over the years, even guarding it alone for two days during the
Never mind that the Fire Department has only three real
divisions, that severe epilepsy beginning in adolescence kept
Morris from becoming a real fireman. Or that his so-called
retirement occurred more than a year ago as worsening, and now
threatening illnesses trapped him at
home, where a constantly crackling radio scanner links him to
the department he loves.
“He is totally dedicated to the Fire Department. So we
decided, ‘Why don’t we have Sam really retire,’ “explained Si
Clarke, one of the event’s organizers and himself a retired
fire captain. “This whole thing is putting the final touch to
Tim Kerbrat, one of the captains at Station 33 agreed. “We
hopefully made his life a little better, and certainly he’s
made our lives better,” he said. :”It sounds corny and all,
but that’s just about the way guys are.”
Morris has mixed feelings about the retirement dinner.
To be sure, the party is a great honor, he acknowledged, and
a welcome break from watching television game shows and
listening to the city wide fire scanner all day on a sofa in
the bungalow he shares with his aunt and uncle. Yet, it also
signifies a finale he wanted to postpone 20 more years.
“It means I’ll just have to stay here,” he said, smiling from
the sofa with what seemed to be a mixture of gentle shyness
and deep regret.
Utterly breaking rules, firefighters sometimes strapped him
into the rigs and took him to fire scenes, where he would wait
in the truck and take notes. Usually, Morris would stay behind
to open and close the station doors. That saved firefighter’s
valuable time in their rush to rescue fire or accident
By the mid 1980s, Morris was spending as many as 20 nights a
month at Station 33 and kept a locker there. He became very
knowledgeable about fire regulations, mechanisms and
traditions, and even was allowed to deliver to rookies a
required lecture about uses of sawdust in soaking up water.
“Sam was physically disabled, but he was plenty smart,”
Most important, stressed his aunt, Bettie Mullin,
firefighters offered camaraderie and purpose after his
classmates at Dorsey High School and Los Angeles City College
went on to have careers and children. Morris has never
married or held a full time paid job, although he did earn a
two-year college degree, she said.
“The Fire Department was his life,” said Mullin, who takes
care of Morris at her home about 40 blocks from Station 33.
“In other words, he wouldn’t be living today if it weren’t for
the Fire Department. He feels happiest with the Fire
Department, like it’s his family. And to see him happy was
great to me.”
All that nearly ended about 15 years ago when someone sent
Morris on a paperwork chore to Downtown headquarters. He
reportedly was wearing a regulating Fire Department uniform.
Angry at the sight, superiors popped a cork and ordered
Station 33 to dump Morris, veterans recall.
A quiet mutiny ensued, according to Clarke. We just kept Sam
out of public view and kept him in the station until it was
forgotten,” he said. However, from then on, Morris’
hand-me-down uniforms did not include the badges and ornaments
that full-fledged firefighter’s must wear.
Within reach are his wheelchair, cane and medicine. Also
close at hand are mementos of his volunteer career. There is
his Division 4 chief’s helmet, a gift that firefighters
painted black to distinguish it from a real chiefs white
headgear. And there are Morris’ meticulously handwritten
journal books, recording big blazes, smoky ovens, heart
attacks, false alarms and car wrecks handled during his shifts
at Station 33. For example, the entry for June 24, 1986,
details a fire at a metal salvage yard that required 300 feet
of hosing for an hour and caused about $100,000 damage.
Even as a 5-year-old, Morris loved to watch fire engines zoom
by, his relatives recall. When he was about 11, he began
riding buses to visit various firehouses, eventually staying
to help clean rigs, cook and play chess with the men. They
bought him clothes, fed him, protected him form bullies and
eased him through his frequent epileptic seizures.
“We see a lot of fire buffs,” said Fire Capt. Douglas Graft,
commander of Station 33. “But Sam is more of a friend to the
Fire Department, not a fire buff. He is more concerned about
the people in the fire station.”
Reflecting a softer attitude toward Morris, the current
department brass approved Sunday’s party. Fire engines will
be pulled out of the station, located at 6406 S. Main St., to
the side yard to make room for tables and chairs. The menu is
to include pasta, salad and a lot of anecdotes about the 4th
Division’s chief. Morris will be presented certificates of
appreciation and a facsimile of a retired division chief’s
Morris has not decided whether he will give a speech. But if
he doesn’t, he wants “the guys” to know “it was nice to work
with them and if they ever need me, just call me. Just keep
IN LOVING MEMORY
SAMUEL L. MORRIS PHELPS
March 8, 1952 - October 14, 1995
In Honor Of My Dear Son
The years, days and hours we spent together shall never be
forgotten, for they were filled with joy. Sometimes sorrow, but God
was always there.
Death is the gate to heaven only God has the key. As sure as I
live, I’ll meet you there and we shall praise God together ten
MORRIS PHELPS was born in Los Angeles, California March 8, 1952. He
attended 37th Street Elementary School, James A. Foshay
Jr. High School, Dorsey High School and Los Angeles City College
earning his AA degree. After college he made the Los Angele Fire
Department, which he loved, his life long career.
Samuel was a “Special Gift” to all who knew him. From an
early age he was deeply touched and influenced by the word of Jesus
Christ. His life was an example of kindness and generosity. He
touched many lives in a very special way. He departed this life on
Saturday, October 14, 1995 at 12:45 in the afternoon.
Samuel leaves to cherish his memory, a loving mother, Alice
F. Garcia; his step father, Ricardo B. Garcia; his sister,
Charlesetta L. Morris; his brother, William H. Morris; his uncle,
Charles H. Jackson; his beloved aunt and uncle, Bettie J. and Eddie
C. Mullin and a host of other relatives and friends.
Samuel L. Morris was buried October 20, 1995 at Inglewood Park
Cemetery. He was laid to rest in Captain Si Clarke’s dress uniform.