Fire Chief, St. Pete Fire Rescue
If there’s one guy you want to help you navigate the streets of St. Petersburg, it’s Chief James Large. Just 18 years old when he joined St. Pete Fire Rescue, he quickly climbed to ranks to the highest position available. But he hasn’t forgot where he came from during that ascent. An active member of charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, Family Resources, United Way and March of Dimes, he spends a bulk of his free time helping causes that give back to children. The St. Pete resident is married to Melissa “Missy” and has three children, Gabrielle, Natalie and Christian. And we can’t forget Bella, the family dog.
How did you become involved with your charity?
When I first joined the fire department 39 years ago, the guys told me that they have a boot drive coming up where we stand on the corner with our boot and collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), the same weekend as Labor Day and the Jerry Lewis telethon. We’ve done something along those lines every year since. The boot drive is the main focus. The International Firefighters Association is one of the original sponsors of the MDA fundraiser. Since 1954, they’ve been the highest contributor; over $240 million donated to date from boot drives all around the country.
What is one of your favorite memories when working with your charity?
MDA always have an ambassador for the region, it’s a child, and that child has come out to the street corner where we stand. They rotate the kid throughout the years, but I remember from the first one to last year’s, when you see them come up and they have this incredible courage to go through what they go through, and to know what they know about the disease, and be confined to a wheelchair, and to have that great spirit and encourage you, it’s amazing. It’s my best memory of anything I’ve done. They really put things in perspective. You realize that you don’t have a bad day. My worst day is not a bad day because I’m blessed.
What is one of your favorite charity events in Tampa Bay and why?
The boot drive is near and dear to my heart, but selfishly my favorite event is Ribfest. That’s a charity function put on by the Northeast Exchange Club and it’s held every year to raise funds for various children’s charities. Anything we can do for the kids is a biggie for me. But selfishly, ever since I made fire chief it opened the door for me to be a celebrity judge. I know I’m helping to raise funds while I’m helping to raise my weight. They’ve raised more than $3.5 million since they started this event and it keeps growing. Judging all those ribs is a tough job but someone’s gotta do it.
As a leading man, what is one of your proudest accomplishments?
In my career, the proudest accomplishment would be my career itself. What I mean by that is, I joined at 18 years old straight out of high school. I’m gone from being a fire fighter to having the honor to lead the department as fire chief. When I look back, I think that’s the thing I’m proudest of. My dad was concerned that I didn’t join the military. He couldn’t afford college for me so he wanted me to go in the military because that’s what he did. He didn’t think I was going to amount to much. I didn’t want to disappoint him so I made it a goal early on that I was going to go as far as I could in the fire department. I consider it an honor to be able to serve as fire chief. I also have to add that while I was working full time, I also went to school and I’ve obtained four degrees: two associates, a bachelors and a masters. I’m proud of that because as the father of three children, I preach to lead by example and I want them all to go to college and get an education and for me to say that and back it up is important to me.
What’s the best dish in Tampa Bay?
There are so many and I could name restaurants from all over, but I’m telling you these soft pretzel sticks and deviled eggs from The Brickhouse are incredible.
What’s one food you won’t eat?
Liver and onions; it’s absolutely awful and the worst tasting stuff I’ve ever had in my entire life. My mom cooked it all the time when I was a kid and made me sit at the table until I ate it. I’d be there for hours.
What do you like to do to unwind?
I love golf. There’s no bad day on the golf course. I don’t get any worse or any better and it’s a four and a half hour break. I enjoy being away from it all. I do enjoy going to my children’s athletic events. It’s a great stress reliever as well.
Who do you most admire in Tampa Bay?
I’m a big sports fan and I’ve gotten to personally know Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. Recently though, I’d have to add Derrick Brooks. When you listen to him speak and you listen to the passion he has for young people of all walks of life, he has such a great perspective on the opportunities that were available to him. You have to admire someone who makes a tremendous personal sacrifice for the good of young people and that’s Derrick Brooks.
Outside of charity work, what inspires you?
Being a 39-year career firefighter, a lot of my inspiration comes from within my profession and at this point, one of the true inspirations is be able to take a young person and put them on a course that could put them in a career path like mine, it keeps me motivated. It keeps me loving coming to work every day.
Which Bay-area spots do you take your out-of-town guests to really show off our city?
Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. I’m extremely biased about that because I live there, but I’d put our waterfront, our parks, our restaurants and everything about the downtown St. Pete waterfront against anywhere. You bring people down there and they’re just amazed. The fact that we have that undeveloped land on the water because of the foresight of our forefathers, we’ll always have that buffer between the high rises and the waterfront.
What advice would you pass on to younger generations?
I get to pass this on to the new hires all the time. We’re such a technology-based generation now and there’s no reset button on life. Whatever you say or do is out there. You can start over in some aspects, but generally in life, you can’t press a button to get an answer on life.
Finish this sentence: The best meal in town is: My mother-in-law’s Christmas lasagna. She’s 84 years old and hand-rolls these tiny meatballs and layers them into the design. It’s a ton of work and no one can copy it.
What are you currently reading?
“Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob” by Bob Delaney
What does your dream vacation look like?
I’m Irish and I’ve never been to Ireland so I think a visit there would be a great vacation. I’d like to play a golf course when I’m there. I’d like to think it would be a lot different than here and a lot more challenging.
If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?
Mind-reading; did you ever see What Women Want with Mel Gibson? Not that I’d want to necessarily read the mind of all women, all though that would be a great gift (laughs). It’s really about cutting out wasted time and getting from Point A to Point B without everyone being reluctant to say what’s on their mind.
Name one thing most people wouldn’t know about you.
I was adopted at birth.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A police officer; I thought that was the job for me. When I graduated from high school, I actually went and tried to apply. The officer told me ‘Son, you go get a haircut or we won’t even talk to you.’ Turns out they weren’t hiring 18 year olds, unless you wanted to be a cadet. The fire department had recently lowered their hiring age to 18 and I knew some guys that were a year ahead of me that had gone there and they were telling me not to go to the police department. I ended up being the second fire fighter they ever hired at 18 years old and ever since I’ve been thankful of that officer for steering me away from the police department.
Favorite album of all time: The Rolling Stones, Some Girls
Favorite childhood television show: Rawhide. When I grow up to be a cowboy, I want to be just like Clint Eastwood.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
If a movie were made about your life, whom would you want to play you?
Sean Connery, the greatest actor ever
Do you have a motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
A modified version of a line I saw on a doormat: Faith, family, friends and the fire department