Firefighter’s return

As photographers, we don’t get many letters from the readers. Occasionally I get a note from a person I’ve photographed, especially if I have found the subject on my own, but most of the time we get very little feedback. So I was surprised about two weeks ago when I received a card from Paula Waters of Orlando. In it, she wrote;

“Your photograph that appeared on the front page of the firefighter Dallas Turner was a wonderful picture. I am sure it is a thrill to have your picture printed in color on the front page. I wanted to tell you how this picture has changed this man’s life.”

“I was one of many people from Orlando that sent your picture to the city hall in Clayton, Ok. In the past several weeks I have kept in touch with Betty Blackburn at City Hall. I had her inform the Turner family if they were able to return to Fla., they would be able to visit the theme parks for free. Through Betty, I have found out that someone in their small town is lending them a car to make the drive here. They have 3 children, ages 6,5, and 3. I have sent them information about all the parks and Disney tee shirts to make it seem real for these kids. I am sure this will be the first time these kids will have been out of Oklahoma.”

The family is interviewed at the airport.
photo by Tom Burton, 1998

I called Betty Blackburn at the Clayton City Hall and found out that in their small town, good jobs are scarce. There is no industry. Clayton is not near a larger city and most of the jobs are temporary. Dallas Turner is like many other men in the town, going from job to job, barely making ends meet. His truck is 16-years old and would never make it to Florida. Even if they could find a good car to borrow, the family probably didn’t have enough spare cash to cover meals and lodging. The money he had made fighting fires in Florida as a volunteer firefighter was in savings as a cushion against tough times. His job on road construction was about to end. “We live from week to week,” Turner would later say.

Hearing this story, I collected some phone numbers from Betty and went to the editors. Laurin Sellers, a reporter for the Sentinel, wrote a story that appeared on Monday, August 17. Laurin told about the Turner’s tough financial situation and how, after the Clayton Times had run my photo that had been distributed by the Associated Press, that Dallas had become a “little hometown hero,”

Riding the luggage cart at the airport

Tom McComb, an executive for Mears Transportation, told me later that he heard about the Turners when the local radio stations began talking about our story. Despite the fact that most chat that morning was about President Clinton’s confession speech the night before, there was plenty of talk about the firefighter in Oklahoma. McComb specializes in organizing corporate conferences and he volunteered to coordinate an effort to bring the Turners to Florida. The response was so great that by early afternoon that same day, everything from airfare to hotels to meals to transportation to spending money and, of course, admission to all the theme parks was set.

In our followup story on Tuesday, McComb was quoted, “The more I heard about this family, the more I realized there was no way in their lifetime they could come here on their own. We just felt this was the right thing to do.”

Riding the monorail to the main terminal

This Monday, Dallas and his wife arrived at Orlando International Airport with their three children. The kids marveled at the fountains in the airport’s hotel lobby and his oldest son, Jared, asked Dallas if an elevator ride was going to be scary.

They piled into the back of the longest limo Mears Transportation had and left to stay at a hotel that’s large enough to house the entire population of Clayton, Oklahoma. They will be here through Sunday and I’m happy for them. Sure, there were hundreds of other firefighters who came to Florida and many of them won’t be able to come back to visit the theme parks. But Dallas Turner just happened to be in a particular place when I was there so the photo could be made. I remember that, at the time, Dallas asked me if I thought the photo would be in the paper. I gave him one of my standard responses – he had a better chance than he did 10 minutes earlier, before I made the picture. The photo ran and Dallas won the lottery.

As for me, I got to see Dallas again and his kids were wide eyed and maybe a bit overwhelmed by the excitement of the trip. I can remember taking my three kids to Disney World at the same ages and I know they’ll have a great time and a heck of a story to tell their classmates back in school. And Dallas, who is sort of quiet and not much with words, did make a point to shake my hand and simply say “thank you.” Now I have a great story I can tell to my friends.

Tom Burton

published originally on August 28, 1998 at

Epilogue: More than 10 years after the story first ran in the Sentinel, I got a phone call at home from Dallas’ daughter Onallie. She was 6 years old when her family made the trip to Disney and she had found this blog post when she Googled her own name. She said she just wanted to thank me again from her family for the story and the trip they were able to take.

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