TAMPA — A few days after A.O. Roberts died, a photo surfaced in a family album. There he was, the old fire chief in a long-sleeved flannel shirt, full of Navy blues, browns and rusts.
He was wearing the same plaid shirt the other day when his son visited him at the rehab center. The photo was at least 15 years old, the shirt years older.
Mr. Roberts, who died Sunday at 85, trusted the old and familiar objects in his life. He drove old cars. He fixed up old houses. He spent 32 years at Tampa Fire Rescue, the last 15 as a district chief.
"He was really proud of the fact that he was a firefighter, of what it meant to be part of an organization like that," said son Paul Roberts, 61.
A farmer's son, Mr. Roberts was born into poverty in rural Tennessee. The family moved to Seffner when he was 9, the same year his mother died.
After stints as a shipyard welder during World War II and a letter carrier, he signed on as a firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue.
"Back then they had lots of fires," said Paul Roberts, also a former firefighter for Tampa Fire Rescue. "They used wood, and the codes weren't the same."
In 1960, the city increased its forces and opened five new fire stations, and appointed Mr. Roberts captain of Fire Station 16.
He was promoted four years later to district fire chief, a rank he retained until his retirement in 1979.
To his sons, Mr. Roberts seemed happiest at home, painting walls with an air sprayer, a compressor hose trailing behind. He sang old tunes as he worked.
"He only knew parts of them," his son said. "He never sang the whole song."
In retirement, Mr. Roberts bought a sagging wooden house in Andrews, N.C., a town of 1,700. He restored it completely. Sometimes Mr. Roberts and Martha, his wife since 1947, took day trips in their car — one day to Franklin, N.C., the next down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
His sons remember their father as a distant man who expressed himself by the things he made or restored.
"He wasn't really one to provide a lot of accolades," said Roberts. "If you accomplished something he'd say, 'Well, that's what you're supposed to do.' "
The younger Roberts might have disappointed his father with his decision to leave Tampa Fire Rescue after nine years. "When I left the fire department, he did not understand it or appreciate it," he said.
His son returned to the field, however, and is now a spokesman for the Lakeland Fire Department. It made Mr. Roberts happy.
This week, while going through his father's belongings, he came across that old flannel shirt, now thin and faded.
His first thought was to throw the shirt away.
"I might not now," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.