LIVE OAK, Fla. — For the past seven years, James Sommers was Suwannee County’s public safety director.
But the 40-year-old St. Petersburg native was much more than that.
According to county officials and friends, Sommers was part of the fabric of the community.
“This was his community and he wanted to be a part of it in the best way that he could,” said Ricky Gamble, the chairman of the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners after Sommers died Aug. 6 following a motorcycle crash in Lake City.
“As the chief, he represented Suwannee County as good as anyone could have.”
Services for Sommers will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. at Christ Central Ministries in Lake City with graveside services to follow at the City of Live Oak Cemetery. A visitation will be held tonight from 5-7 at Daniels Funeral Home in Live Oak.
Sommers’ representation went beyond serving as a member of Suwannee County Fire Rescue since moving back to Live Oak in 2001. It meant more than becoming the county’s fire chief in 2012.
It meant continuing to find ways to give back, like teaming up with Sheriff Sam St. John and the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office on charitable events and being present at the countless festivals and community events across the county.
“He has done so much for the fire service and the rescue personnel here in the county and then on the other side, he gave back to the community though the charitable events that we were involved in,” St. John said, adding while they knew each other for years, the two grew closer since St. John was elected sheriff in 2016.
“We had the same mindset of working for the community and doing things for the community.”
Eddie Hand, the assistant chief with Suwannee County Fire Rescue, said Sommers’ love for the community could be seen at every one of those events and just about every other day.
“He never walked by a person without shaking their hand or speaking,” he said. “He was loved within the community.”
That devotion to the community was also evident in the strides SCFR made under Sommers’ leadership. Since Sommers became public safety director, a fire station was opened in Wellborn and just two years ago, 16 additional firefighting positions were added to the department. Additional fire and rescue vehicles have also been acquired to improve the service “leaps and bounds,” according to St. John.
“He came in and took a department and really made it the most that it could be,” Gamble said. “He put his heart and soul into it. It shows in the department, it shows in his dedication in his off time dealing with the different things that he volunteered for.
“We’ve grown the department, we improved it from what it was to what it is now.”
Now that department will have to grow without Sommers.
On Aug. 6, Sommers was traveling to his home in Lake City following a county commission meeting when a Ford Expedition attempted to turn left onto SW Pinemount Road from U.S. Highway 90 just west of Lake City, causing the front of Sommers’ motorcycle to run into the side of the car, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Sommers was transported to Lake City Medical Center, where he was pronounced deceased.
“It was very shocking news, of course,” Hand said. “I just can’t commend and thank our staff enough of how hard they’re working to honor James.”
That work will continue, said Hand, who has known Sommers since they attended fire school together in the late 1990s.
While Hand joined SCFR after fire school, Sommers joined the Live Oak Fire Department before working for the Fort Walton Fire District from March 2000 through October 2001 when he returned to Suwannee County and joined Fire Rescue.
“It is definitely going to impact me on a different level,” Hand said of their long friendship. “I know all of our guys are having issues, having impacts from it.
“It’s a tough thing, you’re not just losing the leader of our department, but we’re losing a good friend and a brother. The fire department is a brotherhood and a family.
“Fortunately, we have a very good group of fellas here and ladies on staff, and they’re going to persevere and honor the chief to keep things moving in the direction of the mission that he wanted us to reach.”
In addition to that family at Suwannee County Fire Rescue, Sommers is survived by his mother, Sharon Sommers; daughter, Leigha Marie Sommers; son, Gavin Tyler Sommers; all of Live Oak; as well as a brother, an uncle, two nephews and a girlfriend, Danielle Perry, of Lake City.
“It’s a big loss for Suwannee County,” Gamble said. “James, his hard work, his dedication, his passion to fire/EMS and to the community is going to be hard to get by without.
“You can’t replace him.”