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The Haines City Fire Department’s senior man doesn’t wear an oxygen pack or drive the fire engine. He isn’t even on the payroll. Still, his impact on the agency is immense.
For the last 25 years continuously, Andre Horton has been volunteering his time with the Haines City Fire Department. His first experience giving his time however, began before that.
Horton was just a 17-year-old student at Haines City High School in 1993 when he was directed to volunteer somewhere in his hometown for his exceptional student education (ESE) summer work program. His first experience as a volunteer was washing fire trucks.
Horton graduated from Haines City High School in 1995 and spent some time in Ohio, but moved back to Haines City in 1996. Horton immediately wanted to continue volunteering at the Haines City Fire Department, but was told there may be liability issues. That all changed in 1997.
When Landmark Baptist College purchased the old Palm Crest Hotel, Horton’s grandfather served as the caretaker for the affiliated church. His grandfather introduced Horton to eventual Fire Chief Lon Cheney in 1997 and since then, the volunteering hasn’t stopped.
“Somehow, someway, I just wanted to be part of the Fire Department,” Horton said. “I love my city. I can work with anybody. It’s been an incredible journey.”
For Horton just to make it to this point in his life is a miracle in itself. Born premature and just two pounds in 1976, doctors didn’t think Horton would survive and they told his mother that if he did, he would probably never walk. Horton not only walks, but he drives and refuses to be limited by any physical or mental disabilities.
“Andre is one person that I’ve never seen in a bad mood,” said Fire Chief Thomas Murphy Jr. “He’s always humbled me. Andre has never complained about anything. Anyone in a bad mood would be better within two or three minutes of talking to Andre. He’s just incredible.”
Over the years, Horton has seen many changes at the Haines City Fire Department. He’s volunteered for more than 10 chiefs and has seen the city grow and numerous renovations and updates to the Fire Department’s equipment and infrastructure. For his positive attitude, Horton credits his Christian faith. He’s never once considered giving up on volunteering.
“I thank these guys for letting me be a part of their lives,” Horton said. “I’m thankful that every chief that comes in here has let me stay around. I’ve always had this dream of being a firefighter. When you commit to something, you don’t let go of it. I love the city enough to not leave it.”
Horton’s prized possession is a maize and blue fire helmet with the University of Michigan’s signature “M” logo along the side that was gifted to him by the Fire Department. Horton became a diehard fan of the Michigan athletic teams, particularly football, when he was in Detroit for a family reunion in 1987. He keeps it in an enclosed case when he’s at home. In 2009, Horton had the opportunity to attend a game in Ann Arbor’s famous “Big House” and met coaches, players and cheerleaders afterwards.
“I thought I was in Heaven,” he said. “When it was time to leave, I cried like a baby."
Horton has held other jobs in the past such as at Diamondback and Southern Dunes Golf Courses, ESPN’s Wide World of Sports and for Polk County Schools. In 1992, he learned about dispatch and record-keeping as an Explorer at the Haines City Police Department. While he may yell, “Go Blue!” on Saturdays in the fall, his heart is with the men and women who wear red throughout the week.
Although Horton cherishes his time at the Haines City Fire Department, there have been challenges along the way. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Horton was forced to limit his time at the Fire Department.
“I missed seeing the guys, but I understood,” Horton said. “I just had to be patient.”
As people and the fire service have changed over the years, Horton can proudly say that he’s been able to adjust as well. Horton has been volunteering for nine years longer than the department’s longest tenured firefighter has been employed.
“Every time I hear his story, I love it as much as when I heard it the first time,” Chief Murphy said. “He has a fantastic attitude. He’s never turned me down for anything that I’ve asked him to do. Any event or parade we’re part of, he’s the star of our show.”