After collective 106 years of service, three retire from New London Fire Department

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New London — Rod Ventura, Jonathan Cooke and Roger Tompkins collectively contributed 106 years of service to the New London Fire Department, and within the last month, all retired.

"As the department gets younger, we're losing a lot of good, experienced men," former Chief Henry Kydd said, "but once a firefighter, always a firefighter."

Saturday marked the last shift for Ventura, who, with 42 years and one month under his belt at age 63, was the longest-serving member in the department. Other firefighters joked that he should've held on a bit longer to surpass former Chief Ronald Samul, who current Chief Tom Curcio said retired in 2013 after 42 years and 11 months.

"It's a long time, but it's time to leave," Ventura said. "I'm going to miss the guys."

He's looking forward to becoming a grandfather later this year, traveling and becoming more active volunteering for the Burn Foundation. His wife, Regina Ventura, who is Kydd's sister, will be happy to have her husband home on Christmas this year.

Between a surprise cake on Tuesday and a gathering the weekend of Sailfest, firefighters from the city's three stations convened at headquarters midday Saturday to celebrate Ventura with pizza.

The consensus among his firefighter family is that Ventura remains calm and unflappable in stressful situations ("I'm a Libra, I balance things out," he joked), shows younger employees the ropes and is hands-down the best cook in the department. He is particularly known for Filipino specialties like chicken adobo and pancit.

"He could cook a shoe and it would be good. I'm not exaggerating," said recently retired Battalion Chief Tompkins, adding that he has more than once called Ventura from home to ask for cooking advice.

Coming from Hawaii, Ventura was "a Navy brat" who moved with his family to Groton in 1970 and graduated from Fitch High School in 1973. He worked at the former Fun 'N Food Clam Bar in Groton until a co-worker told him the New London Fire Department was hiring minorities.

Ventura became an EMT in 1981 and worked the ambulance for 20 years. In 1990 and 2001, he helped deliver babies.

"Rod was my partner. Every time I turned around, he had the next thing ready to go," firefighter Tom Feliciano recalled of the latter incident. He said the woman was on her way from Montville to the hospital when she realized she was about to give birth, so she stopped at a relative's apartment in New London.

Ventura has spent the past eight years in South Station on Lower Boulevard, he said, where he worked 24 hours on and 72 off.

In 2014, he was recognized as the VFW Firefighter of the Year. In a proclamation, then-Mayor Daryl Finizio cited Ventura's actions when a person was struck by a car on Interstate 95, when a woman fell down a flight of stairs and when an explosion occurred at Thames Valley Steel.

'I gotta protect my guys'

Tompkins, who rose to lieutenant and then battalion chief four years ago, joined the department in 1984, at the same time as Chief Curcio, and retired last Wednesday.

In one of the chief's favorite pictures from the late '80s, the partners stood together in front of an ambulance, and Curcio decided to recreate the picture recently — with the aid of a curly black wig for Tompkins that Curcio's wife found on Amazon. Curcio commented on Facebook that "not much has changed except for the weight gain and hair loss!"

Tompkins began his firefighter career as a teenaged volunteer and then got hired. Both his brothers became firefighters; one is City of Groton Fire Chief Robert Tompkins.

When he was younger, Tompkins said his mindset "was just 'go do it,'" but when he became battalion chief, his first thought became, "I gotta protect my guys."

Since he started, Tompkins has seen the job duties expand.

"We have less fires, but a lot more to do," he said. "When I started, we didn't have any concerns of terrorist attacks. We didn't have mass shootings to worry about or train for hostage situations."

Ventura said positive changes have included decreases in driving under the influence and in the share of kids who aren't in car seats.

People "see firefighters on TV, and nothing on TV is like the real job," Tompkins said. "We do have downtime, but when it's time to work it's 0 to 100, and you've got to be on your A-game every day. Nobody ever calls and says, 'Send me a couple of guys that will do just OK.'"

He's seen a lot of death, to the point where he has driven through New London thinking, "I remember the person that died there; I remember the guy that got murdered there."

Tompkins added, "I can handle the blood and the guts and the gore; that stuff doesn't bother me. It's the emotions."

New London firefighter Al Mayo clearly remembers a fire Tompkins, his uncle, fought when Mayo was 6 or 7. He was walking down Huntington Street when he saw a fire on Federal Street, and he wondered if his uncle was there. Just then, Tompkins stuck his head out the window of the building.

In his retirement, Tompkins will continue working one day a week in the emergency room at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. Otherwise, he plans to travel and spend some time with his son in Alaska.

To fill Tompkins' position, Lt. John Paige — who has been with the department since 1996 — is getting promoted to battalion chief on Wednesday.

Firefighter headed to motorcycle repair school

At 51, Cooke is not retiring entirely but changing careers: In September, he's starting school to become a motorcycle mechanic. Cooke has been a firefighter since age 15, and after 29 years and 10 months with the New London Fire Department, he "just wanted to have a change of pace."

Other firefighters painted a picture of Cooke as something of a Renaissance man, a jack of all trades: Along with being a firefighter and motorcycle enthusiast, he's a pistol instructor, welder, bass player and medic.

A Mystic native, Cooke said of his desire to become a firefighter, "I would like to say that it was all just wanting to help people, but it was the combination of wanting to help people and the adventure and the excitement."

Earlier in his career, Cooke said he delivered babies on five occasions. Another memory that sticks out to him is helping a firefighter who fell through a hole in the roof of a State Street building that was undergoing renovations in the 1990s.

In 2010, Cooke was one of the firefighters commended for their actions in saving the life of a woman in full cardiac arrest.

Curcio said that, like Ventura, Cooke "had a very calm demeanor about him."

e.moser@theday.com

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