MADEIRA BEACH — Firefighting was a serendipitous discovery for Charles Beard.
He was a teenager his first time, walking home as the Arizona sun sank behind him. He noticed a blazing house in the neighborhood, dotted with firefighters hanging from ladders. Mr. Beard walked over, stood and stared.
"Grab a hose!" someone yelled. "Spray water in the air!"
"There was nobody else standing there, so I did what they told me to do," he once told the St. Petersburg Times. "I did what he told me until they realized I didn't work for them."
He never lost the rush.
Mr. Beard, Madeira Beach's former fire chief, died Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 78.
He served in a private fire protection service in Arizona and the U.S. Forestry Service's fire division. After some time in the Army, he dabbled in a string of careers. He worked in a laboratory making cultures, installed aluminum roofs, tended bar and led a Boy Scout group, even without children of his own.
Curiosity kept him moving.
"I always told him he'd be a good policeman," said his wife, Nancy Beard. "He was always interested in things. If he saw people that didn't look quite right or if he was in an odd situation, he was always observing it."
In 1959, he moved to Madeira Beach with his mother. He opened a rental business and worked part time as a police dispatcher and volunteer firefighter. Soon, the fire department hired him as a paid employee, and he climbed the ranks to become fire chief in 1972. He was only 42.
He ran a tight ship and could be intense, studying constantly in seminars and college classes. He lobbied for good equipment and conditions for firefighters.
"He always saw any fire as potentially deadly, from a frying pan on the stove to a full involved structural fire," said Mrs. Beard. "He wanted his men to take it seriously, too."
The couple slept with a scanner at the bedside. He'd routinely get up to answer calls in the middle of the night. Mrs. Beard got so used to it, she slept through the noise.
One of his favorite responsibilities as fire chief was setting off the city's annual Fourth of July fireworks display. He thought the vibrant blasts brought people joy, brought families together. For years, it went off without a hitch.
But 1986 brought disaster.
Mr. Beard lit the opening blast, then shot off two more rounds. As the wind changed direction, Mr. Beard lit the fourth round. It exploded before reaching the sky.
The blast knocked him down, searing his skin and spraying him with flying metal.
Hospitalized for two months, he had a shattered pelvis, broken left arm, burns and bad memories. He was grateful to have survived, but the injuries derailed his firefighting career.
"I'll tell you one thing," he told the St. Petersburg Times after the accident. "If I ever expected this to happen, I wouldn't have done it. Nothing's foolproof in this world. Nothing's foolproof."
Mr. Beard took a job in code enforcement, which he enjoyed, his wife said. He retired in 1995 and took up gardening with Pinellas County's botanical gardens. He played the keyboard, sailed and took day trips with his wife. He adored his grandchildren. He hung doors and fixed windows for friends and showed his stepchildren how to change oil.
"One of the best parts of his personality was that he wanted to help people," said his wife.
Well into his 70s, he could identify types of fire engines by the sound of their alarms. And when flashing trucks sped by him on the street, he'd turn around and follow, just to get a glimpse.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.