'I just like helping people': Local man gives decades of time to community

Savannah Vasquez
Watkins served for one year as volunteer Fire Chief of the Destin fire station even after it became a paid station.

One man, Terry Watkins, has been a constant at the Destin Seafood Festival for the past 37 years running. You can always find him directing traffic along U.S. Highway 98 or patrolling the crowded festival in a patrol rover.

“I’ve done mostly security and traffic, but I’ve been there since the first one,” Watkins said, reminiscing of the early days. “Back then there were no traffic lights in Destin so we helped people across the street at Highway 98 and Stalhman. Back then Highway 98 was only two lanes.”

Watkins, who is 71,  said the biggest change he has witnessed over the years of serving at the festival is the size.

“When we first started we didn’t have but 15 booths and our stage was just a low-boy trailer we borrowed from the military base for the local entertainment,” he said.

As if the feat of having every Destin Seafood Festival on the books were not enough, Watkins revealed that he has volunteered in countless capacities over his 44 years of living in Destin.

“It all started with getting involved with the volunteer fire fighters,” Watkins said of his long list of volunteer hours. “I worked for Destin Water Users and George French, the president of the Destin Water Users board of directors told me, ‘If you’re going to work for the DWU, you’re going to be a volunteer fire fighter.’”

Watkins said that French, who was and investigator for the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office as well as a volunteer fire chief in Destin was like a second father to him. He said in the early days, it was not unusual for community members in Destin to volunteer for multiple roles in society.

“Everyone had a lot of jobs,” said Watkins. “Back then Destin was small and we all got involved with everything.”

Watkin’s volunteerism began as a search and rescue diver for the fire station and quickly morphed into an active role in the Okaloosa County Volunteer Sheriff’s Posse, and even as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician.

“Joel Adler and I liked to dive together and he was a dive-photographer. If anyone would drown or a car or boat would sink, they would come into the dive shop and ask if anyone would help search, so Joel and I started a search and rescue dive team within the volunteer fire fighters.”

It wasn’t long before his volunteer efforts called for more training as expert help was always needed in the ever-growing Destin area.

“We went anywhere in the tri-county area of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, and Walton,” Watkins said of the dive team. “Then the undersheriff came to me one day and said, ‘You need to learn about evidence preservation. Why don’t you go to deputies school to learn what you need to know.’”

That training led Watkins to eventually become captain of the Sherriff’s Posse, inherit the role of Volunteer Fire Chief, and even to become a member of the Florida Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team .

“I started then and I’ve just been doing it ever since,” he said of his training.

“It was a great time to live here. I raised two sons that are now police officers, one here and one in Kentucky.”

Looking over old photos from his volunteer firefighter days, Watkins still remembers every person he has worked with by name, as well as the outcome of every fire that he helped put out. He remembers the Destin of days gone by, and how even the seafood festival has helped shape what Destin is today.

“The seafood festival was started by the Charter Boat Wives Association, they just wanted to bring more people in to promote the fishing rodeo, because at the end of the summer this place was a ghost town,” he said. “I think today word has gotten around the South East and it’s wonderful what they’ve done down at the harbor where they are able to spread it out now.”

Watkins, who now lives in Freeport, added that during this year’s Seafood Festival he also celebrated another volunteer anniversary; “Last Sunday, during the Seafood Festival was my 38th year anniversary with the Sheriff’s Posse,” he said. “In 1977 I joined the Sheriff’s Office Auxiliary, and we go through about half the training the full deputies go through and have to stay updated in training to keep the standards current.”

When asked why he has volunteered so much over the years, Watkins had one simple reply; “I just like helping people, no other reason. Doing all these things, you help people when they need help and that’s what I like.”