This photo was published on the front pages of at least two Journal extra editions on December 7, 1946. Rick Roberts, who died in 2011, is the firefighter on the far left. AJC archive photo

Thomas H. "Rick" Roberts, 94, was ‘a fireman's fireman'

Rick Roberts did not plan to be a firefighter, let alone a battalion chief, according to his sons.

He definitely had not planned to be one of the first firefighters on the scene of the Winecoff Hotel fire, one of the deadliest hotel fires in the country, on Dec. 7, 1946, where 119 people perished -- a year after he joined the department.

A little more than two weeks ago, Chief Roberts joined two other firefighters who fought the historic blaze, and a few survivors from the fire, for a luncheon. The firemen were recognized for their service by Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.

Thomas H. Roberts Sr., of Peachtree City, known to most as Rick, died Tuesday at Piedmont Fayette Hospital from complications resulting from a ruptured aortic aneurysm in his abdomen. He was 94. A graveside service is planned for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Westminster Memorial Gardens. Carl J. Mowell & Son, Peachtree City is in charge of arrangements.

Chief Roberts, by the end of his firefighting days, had climbed the department's ranks, even serving as the interim chief for six months, before he retired after 34 years of service, his sons said.

“He was a fireman’s fireman,” said friend and Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman. “He knew no fear. He would attack fire head on, knowing that there was a possibility of loss of life and property.”

But he did not set out to be a fearless firefighter, his sons said. His main passion was golf.

“I know why Dad joined the fire department,” said Tom Roberts Jr., of Fernandina Beach, Fla. “It was because the schedule would allow him to play more golf. Now he went on to have a terrific career with the fire department, but I can almost promise you it started with golf.”

In 1946, the now-retired Battalion Chief Thomas H. "Rick" Roberts, was summoned to the Winecoff Hotel fire on the first alarm. He and his crew rescued many hotel guests from high windows along the Peachtree Street side of the 15-story building. Two weeks ago, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the fire, Roberts and two other firefighters returned to the hotel for a special luncheon. There they were honored personally by Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran and three of the fire's survivors.
Photo: Family

Chief Roberts, who was born in Charleston, S.C., worked the night shift, which left his days open to play the links, his son said.

Golf had been in Chief Roberts’ blood since his teen years, when he caddied and played at John A. White golf course and at the former Meadowbrook Country Club, now the location of Greenbriar Mall. After high school, he and one of his brothers, Julian Roberts, became golf pros at the former Thomaston Country Club. In the early 40s, Chief Roberts put his clubs away and joined the Army. He was a staff sergeant in World War II, but when he returned he secured a job on Ft. McPhereson as an assistant golf pro.

In 1945, Chief Roberts married Frances Ellenburg and he needed more than a job as an assistant golf pro to support a family, so he joined the Atlanta fire department, his sons said.

Rick Roberts speaks to people gathered at The Spotted Dog -- which used to house Fire Station 11 -- during a commemoration to mark the 60th anniversary of the Winecoff Hotel fire in downtown Atlanta. Roberts, a firefighter at the time who went on to become battalion chief, is credited with helping to save several of the survivors. The fire, at 119 deaths, the worst hotel fire in U.S. history, caused departments across the country to update their fire safety codes. (Allen Sullivan / Special)
Photo: Allen Sullivan

They were married for five years and then divorced, but to the union were born a son and a daughter. In 1948, Chief Roberts married Daphne Marie Roberts, and they also had a son and daughter. Chief Roberts and his second wife were married for 58 years until she died in 2006.

“After my mother died, a lot of people thought that was going to be the end of my dad,” said Mike Roberts. “But he lived in his home, by himself, for the last 5 1/2 years, doing all of the things he felt like he needed to do.”

Chief Roberts’ perseverance in life was recognized by more than his family. Allen B. Goodwin, co-author of a book about the Winecoff fire, said he was in awe of Chief Roberts.

“When I talked to him, I knew I was in the presence of a man who was braver than me,” he said. “And when you were speaking with him you knew you were in the presence of someone who’d been tested and found worthy.”

Chief Roberts is also survived by two daughters, Linda Lytle of Newnan and Dinah Shepherd of Ocala, Fla.; one brother Dr. Robert E. Roberts of East Point; eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

RELATED: Guestbook for Chief Rick Roberts

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