One of the first fires Seaford resident Fred Roth, 88, remembered fighting was a 1950 blaze at a Massapequa lumberyard that was once home to Frank Buck’s Zoo. In the middle of the night, Roth said, several firemen fed a water hose across a small island on a pond where a few of the zoo’s stragglers lived.
“The island had the original monkeys,” Roth recalled, “and they found out that if the monkeys climbed on the hose, they could get out. After the fire, 50 monkeys escaped; there were monkeys flying around Massapequa.”
On April 21, the Seaford Fire Department honored Roth’s 70-year active volunteer firefighting career at the department’s annual installation dinner. Former chief Robert Kern introduced Roth, a man who fought fires months before the neighboring Levittown Fire Department was established, as a passionate ex-chief who preserves the department’s history.
“I have been a member here for 32 years and grew up as a firehouse kid before becoming a member,” Kern said, “and I only can recall one or two men that have Freddy’s passion and love for this fire department.”
According to Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads, a volunteer of over 25 years at the Wantagh Fire Department, Roth is still riding the rigs when he is not telling his stories to fellow firefighters. Referencing Roth’s 70-year commitment to fighting fires, Rhoads said that the Seaford resident sets an example for volunteers who want to give back to their community.
“Fred is the type of the person where being a firefighter and serving his community isn’t just something he does,” Rhoads said, “it’s a part of who he is. For as long as he’s physical able to do that, there is no doubt in my mind that he will continue to serve.”
Born in Jamaica, New York on Aug. 12, 1929 — days after Jones Beach State Park opened — Roth received a volunteer firefighter application from a local tailor and joined the department on Oct. 1, 1948. He slowly ascended the ranks until he became chief of the department in 1964 and, after finishing his term in 1966, served as a fire commissioner for the next 27 years.
Roth recognized a department joke that he “single-handedly changed the look of Merrick Road” as chief, explaining that nearly half of that road burned down during his tenure due to several large fires. “The buildings at time were ready to be burned,” Roth said. “They were all wooden and had defects in the chimneys.”
While volunteering, Roth worked with his father, a union plumber, who also joined the department as a non-firefighter. When the Korean War began in 1950, he enlisted in the United States Naval Construction Battalions — also known as the Seabees — but stayed stateside during his service.
In his downtime, Roth fishes and digs up clams and crabs, something that he learned while growing up during the Great Depression. He said that Seaford’s bay no longer yields as much fish due to environmental issues, but remembers burrowing into the mud at his secret spots in the winter to find hibernating blue crabs.
“You couldn’t put them in the house where it was warm,” Roth added, “because then they go all over the place — that happened over at my old house. We put them in the back shed and forgot about them.”
Roth currently serves as the Seaford FD’s historian, recalling names of fireman in vintage photos and answering young firefighter’s questions about the department’s origins and practices.
His knowledge spills over into the hamlet’s general history, according to Carla Powell, widow of Seaford fireman William Powell and close family friend of Fred and his wife Barbara Roth. As a member of the Seaford Historical Society’s board of directors, Powell appreciates Fred’s donation of artifacts to the society’s museum and vivid recollection of Seaford’s history.
“He’s Seaford personified,” Powell added, “I don’t know how else to explain him — plus the fact that he is a wonderful human being. If I needed him at three in the morning, he would be here.”
Ida Zaharopoulos, the Seaford Public Library’s head of reference and computer services, said Roth gives history lectures at the library and gives parts of his collection to be put on display or for the library’s Long Island history collection. In April, the display case inside the library’s vestibule showcased century-old bottles and pots that Roth found buried behind a Seaford home.
“He wants to make sure that after he’s gone, people know about Seaford and its history,” Zaharopoulos said. “Without him, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about Seaford.”