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Chief’s final journey will be on favorite truck

My favorite image of Mark Souders is one many of us have shared.

It’s the annual DeSoto Heritage Festival Parade and the burly City of Bradenton Fire Chief is standing in the open cab of that shiny red antique fire truck with Mayor Wayne Poston.

Souders is beaming, waving and throwing beads to the crowds lining Manatee Avenue.

“Always had that big smile,” firefighter Terry Wilson said.

“That fire truck was his baby,” Capt. Tom Woods said.

“Riding in the parade was one of his favorite things,” said Will New- some, a retired battalion chief.

“He looked forward to it.”

The restored 1926 American LaFrance will have a more solemn role today.

It will carry Souders’ casket.

“That’s the way he’d have wanted to go,” New- some said.

The shock of Souders’ death hasn’t sunk in yet.

Felled by a fatal heart attack Wednesday morning, he was just 55.

It has stunned everyone who knew him outside as well as inside the fire department.

“This is somebody we lived with, we grew up with,” said Wilson, a firefighter for 31 years.

“Of all the people you’d think would pass, never him. I thought we’d see him forever.”

Firefighters aren’t supermen. We just perceive them that way.

That suited Souders.

He’d train at the firehouse, then go to the gym after work.

He swam during the week, too.

“A fitness freak,” Wilson said. “You’d expect it to be a car accident or something crazy like that, but not a heart attack.”

Doug Huffman, an engineer and union representative, couldn’t come to grips with that, either.

He was close with Souders and struggled to accept that his boss and best friend was gone.

“It was the last thing you expect to have happen to the guy,” Huffman said. “It reminds you of your mortality.

“A harsh reminder.”

He’s been a firefighter for 25 years.

The 14 years Souders was his chief enriched it.

“He was extremely proud of what he did, what I did, what we all did,” Huffman said. “It was his life, being a firefighter.”

It was more than a job to Souders.

It was a profession with a noble legacy.

“He wanted us to move forward, be progressive and more educated about the science of firefighting, but still respect the traditions, the heritage of the fire service,” said Woods, a firefighter for 28 years.

“We were the first ones in the county with formal uniforms -- hats, ties and dress jackets -- an honor guard, and he transitioned us back to traditional helmets,” he said.

“It may sound corny, but it was him, what he was all about. He was really, really big on tradition and wanted to carry it on.”

That included the 1926 fire truck, one of Bradenton’s first.

It was rusting away inside the old city pump station on Second Street West, covered by tarps, forgotten.

Until Souders found out about it from one of his battalion chiefs.

“Mark took it under his wing and it became a project,” Huffman said. “He wanted to make sure it was restored. It came out looking good.”

A labor of love, it took maybe six to eight months.

“Everybody did a little of this and that during their shifts,” Will New- some said.

Most of the truck’s original parts -- i.e., the radiator, gas tank, water pump -- were cleaned up.

Seats were added and the steering wheel was replaced.

They got special new tires from Goodyear.

Costantino’s painted it a vibrant red.

Newsome installed the engine and transmission from a 1979 Ford van.

“It was a challenge, but it was worth it,” said the 26-year veteran.

“The chief is the one who made it come true, brought it back to life.”

A life Souders shared with us, especially at the DeSoto Parade.

“A lot of people who didn’t know him personally, that’s the way they saw him,” Newsome said.

Aboard that classic 1926 American LaFrance, beaming, waving and throwing beads.

Today it will be Souder’s caisson.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Newsome said.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Call Vin at 745-7055, write to him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL. 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com

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