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Tharp spent his life caring for, helping others

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

Retired Carrollton Fire Chief Randy Tharp made a promise to his daughter, Melissa, that he would walk her down the aisle at her wedding, planned for Dec. 28, 2013. The family talked about moving the wedding to an earlier date, but Randy wouldn’t hear of it – even though he had been battling lung cancer for nearly three years.

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He kept his promise. He walked Melissa down the aisle and attended the reception afterward. He even took time to admonish a friend at the wedding, who he felt wasn’t taking care of herself.

Keeping his word and putting the needs of others before himself were two main trademarks of Randy’s character, according to family and friends.

If he made a promise, he kept it, Melissa said during a family interview Monday. “If he had his mind made up, it’d get done. Even to the end.”

Randy, 56, passed away early Monday morning, Dec. 30, less than two days after his daughter’s wedding.

Grace Tharp, his wife of 36 years, said doctors first diagnosed Randy with Stage 4 lung cancer in February 2011. He had thought he had been suffering from pneumonia since the previous November, but finally had tests done after he passed out while on the job at the fire department.

The prognosis didn’t look good: Without treatment, he had about one to two months. With treatment, perhaps one to two years, she said.

Still, even dealing with surgery and chemotherapy, Randy attended two fire schools and held onto his job for several more months, officially retiring Sept. 30, 2011.

During a hospital stay this past December, Randy was visited by five of the original doctors who’d diagnosed and treated him. “All of them could not believe he was still here,” Grace recalled. “They said, ‘We gave you three months after you had surgery.’  He was a case study, because nobody could figure out why he was still here.

“It was willpower,” Grace said, simply. “He said he was not ready to lay down and die.”

And he didn’t slow down much, even when he wasn’t feeling well. Randy continued to do the things he enjoyed. In October, he went salmon fishing with friends in Michigan, bringing home a 30-pounder. In November, he went hunting and brought home three deer for the family to eat.

And he always made time for woodworking.

“He loved working with his hands. Almost everyone he knows, he made something out of wood for them or refinished something for them,” Randy’s son, Eric, said. He and his father continued to search flea markets and antiques stores to find pieces to restore.

“He could take something that was rotting and turn it into a masterpiece.”

But Randy would never take money for his work, Eric added. If someone insisted on paying him, his father would only accept enough money to pay for his supplies. He never charged for his time and labor.

Randy never let his illness keep him from mowing the lawn at his home and his son’s home, and Melissa said he wouldn’t let anyone else do the work – even during the severe heat last summer.

“Even though he lost his strength and energy, he still mowed,” Melissa said. “It was the one thing he could still do.”

Randy even continued to care for a cemetery he had “adopted” nearby on Mound Hill Road, Eric said. Years ago, Randy cleared the long-forgotten cemetery that includes members of the Dunn and Coghill families, and, from that point on, mowed there every month.

Randy found his love for helping others almost by accident. At the suggestion of his father-in-law, David Corley, he joined the Westside Volunteer Fire Department in 1978. In 1984, he became chief. In 1997, then-Carrollton Mayor Bill Welty hired Randy as chief of the city’s fire department – a position he held until his retirement.

“It just got in his blood,” Grace said.

The position of fire chief “fit him perfectly,” said longtime friend and neighbor Scott Martin. “He was all about helping people. He was concerned for their well-being. ... He put his family and friends first, then his job, and then hunting, fishing and woodworking.”

At the time of Randy’s diagnosis, Martin and three other close friends – Mike Kemper, Ruthie Heightchew and Corley – began a tradition of visiting Randy every Sunday evening “to drink coffee and watch TV.”

There were days, Martin said, when it was clear Randy wasn’t feeling well, but his friend never let on and never turned anyone away.

“He never complained, and he did everything the doctors told him to do. He stayed optimistic,” Martin said.

Randy also liked to keep things simple, Grace said. About a year ago, he went to Tandy-Eckler-Riley Funeral Home in Carrollton and made all the arrangements for his own funeral.

“He was a man of detail,” Grace said. “He took care of everything. ... He didn’t want the fire truck parade, where the trucks went through town. He was a man who wanted to keep things simple in life.”

“He didn’t like a lot of attention drawn to himself, but yet he impacted so many lives,” Melissa said.

“If I said everything that was good about him, you’d have to add pages to the newspaper,” Martin concurred. “I’m sure going to miss him.”