Having a Servant’s Heart

By Gretchen Eichenberg

The Tatum Family

Pictured: Photos by Grace-Marie Brunken

Newly empty nesters Bobby and Rosemarie Tatum are also new to Waco. When Bobby took the position of Waco fire chief just over a year ago, his wife, a soft-spoken, but passion-filled teacher, couldn’t wait to put her skills to work for the kids of Waco ISD. Their four children had all flown the nest, so the couple felt free to start a new life in Waco. But what hasn’t changed is the way they both feel deeply called to serve their community and the people in it, as part of their everyday lives.

WACOAN: Welcome to Waco. How long have you been here now?

Bobby: A little over a year. I came first. I got the job in April of last year, and my first official day on the job was May 16, 2016. We closed on our house the following week.

Rosemarie: Everything happened really fast.

Bobby: I paid for one month in an extended stay hotel because I didn’t know how long I would be here by myself. But the houses don’t last long here in Waco.

WACOAN: These days, that’s for sure.

Bobby: We would call a realtor and say, ‘We like this house.’ And they’d say, ‘Sorry, it’s gone.’ So we decided we would just drive to Waco and pull up a list of houses.

We had a list of houses, and this is the first house we looked at. Rosemarie and my daughter, Briana, looked at the house and they walked out to the pool.

Rosemarie: And I didn’t want to look at anything else. I was sold.

Bobby: We looked at probably six more houses that day, but she knew she liked the first one.

WACOAN: Was it a good fast — like everything must be right?

Rosemarie: Yes! It was a good feeling. It was like everything just fell into place.

Bobby: And here’s another thing that made us feel like things were falling into place: When we moved from Fort Worth, we decided to start fresh with all new furniture to go with this house. I gave Rosemarie the credit card and told her to go pick out new furniture. She went to Bob Mills [Furniture] —

Rosemarie: And I had never been there in my life —

Bobby: And she picked out some things she liked. When she told the sales people where we live, they said, ‘Wait we know your house because our manager lived there and sold the house to you.’ So they knew the house well enough to say, ‘No that couch won’t work there. This is what you need. And if you turn this chair this way.’

So that was another sign. Out of all the furniture places in town, we went to the store where the previous homeowner worked.

Rosemarie: And this home was beautifully decorated when we first looked at it. They had a beach theme with all white. But that just wouldn’t work for us because we have little grandbabies. So all white was not happening.

WACOAN: Who are all the family members?

Bobby: We have four children, but they are grown and gone. Our oldest son is Bobby III, and he’s 32. Brandon, our [second] son, is 30. He’s a police officer in Tucson, Arizona. He graduated from the University of Arizona and played football there, and after college he decided to stay in Arizona.

Rosemarie: Bobby played football at the University of Texas, and we got to see him play in the Rose Bowl. And our third son, Christian, went to the University of North Texas, and he’ll be 25 this month.

Then there’s our baby girl, Briana, who is 19. She’s in Arlington at the University of Texas at Arlington, studying to be a nurse practitioner. She’s a nursing assistant at Parkland Hospital [in Dallas].

Bobby: Our kids followed us in public service but not as firefighters.

Rosemarie: Or teachers.

Bobby: But each one has a servant’s heart. Our oldest boy, after school, became a personal trainer and worked with folks on nutrition, and his passion is helping people.

And Brandon, being a police officer, that’s his passion as well. Christian is in the music business, so he’s more of an entrepreneur but loves working with people.

Rosemarie: He creates videos for local artists.

Bobby: And Briana works as a nurse.

I’m so proud of this because I’ve always stressed to the kids to find a job that you love. I never pushed them to do anything other than that.

In the fire department, I’ve never worked a day in my life because I really enjoy what I do. I love it that much.

WACOAN: So, let’s back up a bit. Tell me how you landed this job in Waco.

Bobby: I was with the Fort Worth fire department for 31 years, and I really had a great career with a lot of success. My [former] fire chief is a really great friend, and we grew up in the fire department together.

But I felt stagnant, like I’d hit a wall. I worked in arson and bomb, fire prevention, operations — I had worked in every department but had never been over the entire department — and I felt like I was ready for that. So, I decided to apply to be a fire chief.

WACOAN: How did you get to Waco?

Bobby: I wanted to go to a city where I could come in and make a difference.

I didn’t want to come to a fire department where they’re all squared away, where I’d just come in and attend all the community events and be there for show. I wanted to come to a department where there was change needed and the department recognized that — and where I could make a difference.

I inherited a great fire department; it’s a combination of young and old. We have a lot of firefighters who’ve been on for a long time, and they have their way of doing things. And then you have the young, energetic firefighters who are looking forward to change. So, that’s a great dynamic to have both. I feel like we’ve already accomplished a lot in the year that I’ve been here.

Rosemarie: The timing was right too. Our four children had moved out, one by one, and I said, ‘OK, we’re ready. Wherever you want to go, I’m willing.’ And then Waco popped up.

Bobby: She said, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t say Waco.’ She said she’d follow me anywhere, but she didn’t mean Waco. [Laughs.]

But that’s what’s awesome about my wife. She said, ‘If that’s your dream, I’ll go with you.’

Rosemarie: We had only just driven through to visit our son and watch him play in Austin. It was just a pit stop. But this is really a city. It’s a beautiful city and a very progressive city.

Bobby: I love Waco.

WACOAN: I’m so proud that you love Waco. Have you been welcomed and embraced well by the people of Waco?

Rosemarie: People are so friendly, everywhere we go. Even if they don’t know who Bobby is, they are so friendly. It’s hard to describe how welcome we feel.

Bobby: We love being here. We love Cameron Park. I have a motorcycle, and Rosemarie rarely rides with me. But I talked her into going, and we rode through Cameron Park, winding through the trees and up to Lover’s Leap and had a picnic. This is a reason to love Waco.

WACOAN: What do you love most about your job?

Bobby: I have a servant’s heart, and I do care about people. But the adventure of being a firefighter, it’s fun. I like being at the fire station, the camaraderie.

Rosemarie: It’s a brotherhood.

Bobby: It’s a real family. We take care of each other. So, that fraternal atmosphere is special.

And as a firefighter, you can make a difference. You could have a job and spend an entire career not feeling like you made a difference in peoples’ lives. You can make a difference in any job, but in many jobs you have to find a way to make a difference. But in the fire service, it’s easy to make a difference because it’s tangible.

When you go to someone’s home and they are in an emergency situation and you make that better, you’ve made a difference. In public safety, you see every day that you’ve made a difference.

WACOAN: Do you ever worry about him doing such a dangerous job?

Rosemarie: At first, I really didn’t.

Bobby: She thought I didn’t do anything. Every time she would come to the fire station, we were just reclining, watching TV, getting ready for the next call. She would come by and visit when we weren’t busy, so she never saw the emergency side.

Rosemarie: But one day he came home from a fire. The ceiling had fallen and burned his chin. And that’s when it became real and I realized he really does do something.

Bobby: I called her and said, ‘Honey, don’t be alarmed. I got burned and I’m going to the emergency room, but everything’s OK.’

Then she started telling me to be careful and be safe every time I left the house.

Rosemarie: After that, I attended my first fire, and it was a nighttime fire. It was exactly like what you see on TV.

WACOAN: How long ago was that?

Rosemarie: About a decade ago.

Bobby: We were out together, and I got a call. I said ‘I can’t take you home. You have to go to the fire with me.’

Rosemarie: All the fire trucks and the ladders. I was like, ‘Wow!’

WACOAN: How long have you been married?

Bobby: We were married in May of 1995, so 22 years.

Rosemarie: Look at you, remembering! Very good.

WACOAN: How did you meet?

Bobby: Rosemarie was living in Dallas, and I lived in Fort Worth. The Dallas Cowboys were in a playoff game — or was it the Super Bowl? We met at a nice pub, you know a place where people socialize.

Rosemarie: I really didn’t want to go. My sorority sister wanted to get out of the house, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll come.’ And as soon as I walked into the door, I saw this young man. And do you remember what you said?

Bobby: Oh, please.

OK. It was a crowded place, and we came face to face. And I said something like, ‘I’m not going to move unless you dance with me.’ It was something like that. I saw her there and, instantly, there was nothing else in the room. I had to think of something to say.

What I didn’t know is that she loves to dance, so I picked the right line. We danced the whole night, and the rest is history.

Rosemarie: We didn’t get together again until about a month later.

Bobby: She didn’t give me her number. She said ‘Give me your number, and I will call you.’ So it was a ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’ situation.

Rosemarie: He took me to a play.

Bobby: We met in January, and we were engaged by May or June.

WACOAN: And now you’re grandparents. Are the grandkids a big part of your life?

Rosemarie: There’s one who we don’t see as much because he lives in Seattle. But our others are closer, and we’re looking forward to the summertime when we can spend time with them.

Bobby: With our work schedules, it’s hard to spend time with them. But, since Rosemarie is a teacher, summer is usually when we get to do a lot with the grandkids. So that’s fun.

Moving to Waco, it’s our first time as empty nesters. With four kids, we always had a crowd in the house. So, we are trying to figure out what people do.

WACOAN: It’s very quiet and peaceful here in your home.

Bobby: We’re both like, ‘What do you want to do tonight?’

Rosemarie: It’s very different. In some ways, we were looking so forward to this time. But now that we’re here, it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s quiet.’

WACOAN: So, what do you do?

Rosemarie: Our jobs keep us really busy.

Bobby: She works so much.

Rosemarie: I teach seventh grade math at [G.W. Carver Middle School]. I love my babies, and I spend a lot of time with them after school, tutoring, attending their sporting events. And I also spend a lot of time working on lesson plans.

WACOAN: What time do you get home each day?

Bobby: Tell the truth. (She’s a work-a-holic.)

Rosemarie: About 8:30 p.m.

Bobby: I try to get to work early. My schedule is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But as fire chief, there’s no time limit. I never turn off my phone — it stays on 24/7. But I try to keep to the 8-5 schedule because one of the things I’ve learned from my mentors is not to let your job interfere with family.

I try to stress to my people that we are a family, but they also have to take care of their families. Since I emphasize that, I have to take it to heart as well. So at 5 o’clock I say, ‘I’m going home.’ But I do get phone calls all times of the day and night.

WACOAN: Is that hard for Rosemarie?

Bobby: She’s so patient. Texts, phone calls and pagers going off at all hours. But, we’ve been like that for 20 years.

Rosemarie: Sometimes we take two separate cars to dinner. I’m used to it.

Bobby: Now that I’m not actually putting the fire out, it’s a little different. But fire chief is a 24-hour job. I have a responsibility for 204 men and women. I worry about their well-being 24 hours a day. The fire department never has a day off.

WACOAN: And Rosemarie seems really supportive of you.

Bobby: We recently attended a recruit graduation, and the officiant said to me, ‘I always see you and your wife together. Your wife is at every event, and I know that must be part of why y’all have been married for so long.’ I’m really lucky that she’s so supportive of me.

She’s also part of the Waco Fire Fighters’ Auxiliary and that promotes family involvement. The Waco fire department is very much family oriented. When something is going on with a fire department member’s family — a baby or a death or anything — an email goes out letting everyone know. It wasn’t like that in my previous job.

Rosemarie: The ladies of the auxiliary welcomed me with open arms. Yes, I am the fire chief’s wife, but we keep that separate and we are like sisters, supporting the firefighters and their families. We have meetings and chats and get things done.

Bobby: The ladies really step in and support the department, and I appreciate Rosemarie’s leadership.

Rosemarie: The fire department has been really good to Carver, the school where I teach.

Bobby: One of the things I really wanted to focus on is community engagement. Get out of the fire station, go to schools and show-and-tells so that people see us every day and not just on the worst day. But that was already happening in Waco, and that’s a great thing.

Rosemarie: Station 1 has been a big part at Carver. They were there for the first day of school, even though that might seem like an elementary school thing to do. The middle schoolers loved it.

WACOAN: Talk to me about teaching middle schoolers.

Rosemarie: They are wonderful. This is one of the last years we can really help instill those morals and values before they go off to high school. These are the most important years.

WACOAN: From your perspective, how can we best reach the youth of today?

Rosemarie: Listening. They want us to listen, and they want to be trusted. They have to earn that trust, but they do want to be trusted.

They want us to follow through on our promises. If we, as parents or teachers, say we are going to their sporting event, we have to be there. They are looking for us.

Bobby: Rosemarie cares a lot about her students and really wants to spend time with them. Once a month, she takes some of her girl students out.

Rosemarie: It’s a girls night out. The girls put their names in a bag, and I choose five names a month and we go for manicures and out to eat.

I help them practice things they have learned, like how to calculate a tip. Calculating sales tax is a big part of the seventh grade curriculum.

It’s neat to watch them be treated like queens. We’ve been to On The Border, Chili’s, Golden Corral, wherever they decide. I love seeing them be pampered, but in turn I want them to grow up and be of service to others and to be role models for other girls.

Bobby: We took a group of her kids to a Dallas Mavericks game in February. She’s been doing this ever since we were married, taking a genuine interest in the kids.

Rosemarie: I’m big on home visits. I visit many of my students and their parents at home, and [the parents] love having someone take an interest in their baby. Many of my parents can’t come to the school, so this is a way I can involve them in what’s going on. I like to develop that relationship with parents, so I can be their eyes and ears.

Middle school is the chance to build [students’] self-confidence and support them in believing in themselves and who they are. And I’m a teacher for life. I stay in touch with many of my students. I tutor, text, attend weddings and celebrate their successes.

One of my former seventh graders — I’m very proud of him — got a football scholarship to [Oklahoma State University] and just got drafted to the Kansas City Chiefs. I just heard from him on my birthday.

WACOAN: That’s wonderful, but it must take a lot of your personal time.

Rosemarie: Yes, but Bobby has supported me all these years in the field of education. I have always spent a lot of time with my students, and he has taken care of our babies at home. He’d have dinner ready when I came in late and that kind of thing.

Bobby: So, I’m the early person, and I’m the cook.

WACOAN: You’re the cook?

Bobby: Being a firefighter, you learn to cook. I’m not an outstanding cook, but I can cook a variety of things.

WACOAN: What are your specialties?

Bobby: Chicken spaghetti. I introduced her to taco salad. I did chicken cordon bleu once. I was experimenting.

WACOAN: I can picture you as a grill master.

Bobby: I do grill. We’re outside people, so you’ve got to be able to grill. I like hanging out by my grill. Most men have a man cave somewhere in the house, but mine is outside, so I call it my doghouse. No matter what time of year. When it’s cold, I turn on my heater and sit outside and watch TV. I have my little refrigerator with beverages.

WACOAN: Do you eat at home most nights?

Bobby: When the kids were home, yes. But now, I’m like, ‘Let’s go out to eat.’ And we try to eat at different restaurants in Waco.

WACOAN: What are your favorite spots? Where could Wacoans go to see the fire chief having dinner?

Bobby: I go to George’s on Tuesdays for the all-you-can-eat catfish. I like to sit at the bar and have my catfish.

Rosemarie: I love Fuji.

Bobby: That’s my favorite! My favorite restaurant in Waco is Fuji. That’s my No. 1.

Rosemarie: Don’t forget Sascee’s.

Bobby: Oh yeah. Sascee’s is a home-cooked meal, and we usually go there on Sundays after church. Rosemarie loves steaks at Texas Roadhouse.

Rosemarie: We were never steak-eaters until we moved to Waco.

WACOAN: What? You didn’t eat steaks in Fort Worth?

Rosemarie: We really didn’t eat steak until we came to Waco.

WACOAN: What’s your perfect Saturday?

Rosemarie: Sleeping.

Bobby: My perfect day is to get on my Harley and ride in the wind, with my bride on the back.

Rosemarie: My perfect day is sleeping in.

Bobby: I know the perfect day for us: We’re at a Cowboys game, and they win!

WACOAN: What kind of music do y’all like?

Rosemarie: I like classic R&B and ’80s. Bobby’s into jazz, but that makes me too sleepy.

WACOAN: How important to you is being a part of your community, not just as fire chief but as a citizen?

Bobby: Being a part of the community is very important to us. We haven’t found a church home yet, but we were very involved in our church in Fort Worth.

We like to support community events. I’m on the board of directors for Meals & Wheels here, and I was on the board of Meals On Wheels in Tarrant County for 20 years. I think somebody told the Meals & Wheels folks in Waco that I was coming, so they were ready for me.

WACOAN: Earlier, you mentioned having a servant’s heart and that’s certainly evident in the way you approach your jobs, your family lives, the way you raised your children and the way you view community. Where did you learn these values? Did your parents teach this or did you find this path on your own?

Rosemarie: My mom was a beautician, and she was very loyal to her clients. She also did community work. I watched her as I was growing up and saw how she cared for others and wanted to be of service to others and help others.

And maybe sometimes it seems like I go overboard, but I try to keep it in perspective. But I never want to stop giving to others. I learned that through my mom, and I miss her dearly.

WACOAN: And, Bobby, how did you come to care so much about helping others?

Bobby: My mother raised three boys. We didn’t have much, but personally I was blessed to have opportunities, so I always try to look back at that and see how can I help somebody else.

When you grow up without a lot of things — and I know because I was there — you do feel an obligation to share what you have now. We both grew up not having much but were blessed as adults to have the opportunity to help others. And in doing that, you see the blessing come back to you tenfold.

Rosemarie: I’ve always worked with children of low economic status. And while you can’t give them everything, you can give them love and let them know that somebody cares. And you can let them know they can grow up and make a difference to someone else.

Bobby: I hope that’s what we bring to Waco, making a difference. We knew we wanted to live in Waco, pay taxes in Waco and serve the people of Waco. Rosemarie wanted to serve the children of Waco ISD. We both had people lifting us up, and we want to do that for others here in Waco.

I feel like we came to Waco at just the right time. It’s a city that’s growing by leaps and bounds. We’re excited about being here and we’re looking forward to the future of the city of Waco.