Tanner Gillespie was a dedicated firefighter, trusted colleague and friend. But to Christopher Shee, the 20-year-old was like a son.
Last November, Shee received a phone call from one of his sons, breaking the news that Tanner had been killed in an off-duty accident. The shock of that day is forever seared into Shee’s memory.
“It was crushing. It was one of the worst phone calls I’ve ever received,” Shee said. “We went over to Gene and Julie’s house (Gillespie’s parents) that morning and spent the entire day with them.”
Having known the Gillespie family for decades, Tanner and Shee’s sons grew up together. A natural-born helper, Tanner dreamed of becoming a firefighter with the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department — just like his father, who reached the rank of lieutenant. Shee remembers being so proud of him.
“Not only did he accomplish that, but then to go to the station where his dad worked his entire career, it just seemed like it was meant to be,” Shee said. “Even though Tanner left this world early, he got to fulfill one of his biggest dreams.”
To help others achieve their dreams, Shee decided to launch a scholarship endowment to help high school seniors interested in becoming firefighters. It’s through Investing in Kids, known as “INK!” The Shee family and other groups put up a combined $100,000 to get it started.
The endowment will pay for at least one St. Johns County high school student each year to go to the fire academy since Tanner was a St. Johns County graduate.
“We all have a void in our heart, but this is a little Band-Aid that kind of helps that,” Shee said.
Tanner’s parents will have a direct hand in the student selection process. For Shee, this part is especially touching.
“The thought of Gene and Julie choosing a graduating senior and getting to meet that person and knowing that Tanner’s love will pass on through others in perpetuity, I just knew that was the right thing to do,” Shee said.
Tanner’s death is felt by many in the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department. To those thinking of following in his footsteps, Shee says to simply follow your heart.
“For those who have it in their heart to be a public servant, whether it’s fire or a police officer, or whatever it is,” Shee said. “They very rarely get the accolades that they deserve, but they are so important to our everyday life.”
High school seniors can apply for the Tanner Gillespie Scholarship starting Monday, Feb. 5, at apply.ink-stjohns.org.
The application period will close on Friday, March 22. The Gillespie Scholarship application will be found under the “Senior Scholarships” tab.
Shee said the plan is to award the first scholarship this year.
People can donate to the scholarship endowment as well. To do that, visit, ink-stjohns.org. Go to the drop-down menu and select “Tanner Gillespie Memorial Scholarship.”