To completely understand Jerry Sanford, who is a Navy veteran, former police officer and firefighter, fundraiser, volunteer and professional father figure, it helps to recall a certain fable by the Brothers Grimm.
“There was once a shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest: but still he could not earn enough to live upon; and at last all he had in the world was gone, save just leather enough to make one pair of shoes.
“Then he cut his leather out, all ready to make the next day, meaning to rise early in the morning to his work. … In the morning after he had said his prayers, he sat himself down to his work; when, to his great wonder, there stood the shoes all ready made, upon the table.”
As historically written, the shoemaker and his wife wait up to see who is doing the work and find out it’s “two little naked dwarfs.”
This is not to say that Sanford is an unclothed little person who cobbles shoes on the sly. In fact, he’s trim and fairly tall with plenty of white hair and a white mustache that seems to suit his native New York-speak: Listen and you’ll hear him share an “idear.” He’s a no-frills kind of guy. But for years, he has quietly and with no craving for recognition been making things happen for the benefit of others—including veterans, older citizens, fellow retired firefighters and others.
And although he’s no fairy tale figure, there are moments in our shared history that seem to exist in a similar surreality—especially when imagined from the distance of time. These are the dark, dark fables.
Sept. 11, for one.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occupy that space for many people not personally touched by its loss, especially those not born yet or young enough to be shielded from the full horror. For others, remembering it is a chronic condition that flares up with the calendar, a mention, a memory.
For Sanford, it is still acute. “I think about it every day,” he says.
As a 30-year member of the New York City Fire Department and a member of the Collier County Freedom Memorial committee and foundation, he said a few words in mid-November when students from the New Beginnings School—the eldest of whom would have been at most 3 years old that day—visited the Freedom site at Golden Gate Parkway and Goodlette-Frank Road.
“You may have learned about this in history class,” Sanford said regarding Sept. 11, 2001, and the $2 million local monument’s tribute to its first responders, all first responders and veterans of the U.S. military. He talked about the memorial and the significance of learning from history. He said nothing about his direct connection to the attacks, the important part he played in the aftermath or the integral part he played in raising money for the memorial.
He’s not shy about taking a microphone. “He’ll take the Fisher-Price from the kid’s hand and tap it: ‘Testing,’” said the woman in his life, Chris Griffith, with a smile. But he won’t be talking about himself.
At his home in Bonita Springs some days earlier, Sanford explained how he returned to his post as public information officer for the New York City fire department from about a week after the attacks until mid-October, when “I was done. I just couldn’t go to any more funerals,” he said.
Sanford had retired in 1997 from the department and moved to Southwest Florida, where rather than actually retiring, he began working as PIO for the North Collier Fire Department. Several years later, a man brought an old leather fire helmet to the station, saying it was his father’s. Sanford recognized the insignia as coming from a firehouse in the Bronx. So a contingent was formed to return the helmet to its rightful station, arriving in New York on Sept. 8, 2001. On Sept. 10, they attended a dedication at that firehouse and Sanford went to lunch with some fire department friends. “Three of the eight were dead 12 hours later,” he said, the words struggling to get past his emotion-choked throat. He stopped talking and bowed his head. “Sometimes I have to catch myself,” he said.
Early on the morning of the 11th, the Florida group got as far back as Pittsburgh, sitting in a plane on the runway and ready to take off when all flights were grounded. The news of the attacks was beginning to spread. Sanford drove back to New York in a rental car, “and I’m screaming in the car, ‘That’s impossible! I saw those towers built. They can’t come down!’”
Back in New York, he spent the next several weeks as chief media wrangler. “They all wanted to talk to a fireman and a widow,” he said.
He is an official, as well as unofficial, coordinator.
“I’m his shadow,” said Freedom Memorial Foundation Treasurer Sam Cadreau at the mid-November event at the memorial. “He’s the center core that keeps this organization together.”
Sanford performs a similar function as the volunteer coordinator on the board of directors of Collier County Honor Flight, arranging the people power necessary to transport veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their war memorials at no cost. And that’s how he met Griffith, in April 2015.
While attending an Honor Flight meet-and-greet, he says, “I see this beautiful woman (in an Honor Flight shirt) and she’s talking to this veteran. And I see she has ‘Chris’ on her name tag. So I go up to her and we talk. And the following Monday I called her. I was like a 13-year-old kid,” he said, shaking his head. “I think it’s like this. She was doing some good, and I was doing some good, and I think the good Lord said, ‘I’m going to let these people meet.’”
At the time, Sanford, now 78, had been widowed for several years. A brief marriage as a young man produced two sons, who have not started families yet. But his second wife had 12 grandchildren and Griffith has two, putting 14 young people into his grandfather orbit. Actual biology seems to be irrelevant to them all.
On his refrigerator is a drawing made by Victoria, “one of the 2001 gang,” he said. On it, she spells out GRANDPA: “Generous, Respectful, Awesome, Never Gives Up, Dedicated, Persuasive, Always There for Me.”
Throughout the house are memorabilia once in his fire department offices, including two Little Golden Books for kids about fire engines—just in case a kid came by. There are awards he’ll show if coaxed, including the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce for his role in the Freedom Memorial and a plaque from the Collier County Citizen Corps for years of service.
With the citizen corps, “he’s trained more than 1,000 people to take care of themselves and others in an event like a brush fire,” says Fire Chief Jamie Cunningham of the North Collier department, who has known Sanford for 15 years. Sanford founded the Gulf Coast Retired Firefighters Association, and another program to help older citizens called Serving Our Seniors. When first responders notice that people need some kind of help, they notify Sanford, who visits each one to find out what they need. Then a core group of volunteers steps in to arrange for help, whether it’s grocery shopping or agency assistance.
Cunningham calls him “a firefighter’s firefighter.”
“He’s in the station several times a week. He’s our emcee at many of our events. He hosts promotional ceremonies and the swearing-in for firefighters. He’s always been that go-to guy.”