The most important lesson Tray Ross said he learned about fatherhood from his own father was this: “Anybody can be a daddy, but only a real man can be a father.”
To him that means being a provider, a protector and someone who is there when his child needs him.
Ross, 20, is best known in Hall County for rushing into a smoke-filled, burning house last November and pulling out Harold Johnson Jr., a 76-year-old blind man who was trapped in the kitchen of his burning home. Both men were taken to the hospital and treated for smoke-related injuries.
Officials say Ross saved Johnson’s life.
“We’re truly blessed,” said Johnson’s daughter, Janet Williams, days after the rescue. “There is a God, and Tray was an angel.”
Despite Ross’ reputation and his dreams of becoming a professional firefighter, his No. 1 priority right now is being a father and husband that’s there for his family.
Today is Ross’ first Father’s Day as a dad.
Cooper Ross, who turns 1 next month, shares his father’s blue eyes, blond hair and baby face.
Ross may be a young father, but he’s got an old-fashioned sensibility to fatherhood and providing for his family.
Working as a poultry line supervisor for Fieldale Farms, Ross has the third shift. That means late hours.
“It’s hard because he works all night,” said his wife, Jessica, also 20. “When he gets home, he sleeps.”
The job pays a little more than $10 an hour. For now, he’s the sole family breadwinner on that wage, while Jessica takes classes at Lanier Technical College. She’s studying to be a medical assistant, while also caring for Cooper.
When he’s not catching up on sleep, Ross does get some time with his son.
In fact, Jessica said, Cooper lights up when his dad returns home early in the morning.
“Cooper can be dead asleep and hear (Tray’s) voice. He shoots up and starts screaming ‘Dadda!’,” she said. “He never yells for Mama.”
While the family is financially scraping by — and actually still managing debt from medical bills incurred after the rescue — Ross is still positioning himself to fulfill his dream of becoming a firefighter.
Before the fire, Ross had already taken firefighter classes in Union County and served as a volunteer. When he couldn’t get a job as a firefighter there and when he learned that Cooper was on the way, he took the job at Fieldale. But Ross’ heroics in November proved to only further his commitment to becoming a first responder.
Once the news broke of Ross’ heroics, there were calls within the community that he should be hired as a firefighter by one of the local departments.
When Hall County Fire Services listed openings for the department, Ross applied. That application, however, didn’t go far because Ross had dropped out of high school and had put off getting his GED.
Since that setback, Ross took classes to brush up on his education and he took a GED test last week. He expects to find out his test results early this week. If it’s good news, he said, he’s calling the local fire departments to ask what other steps he can take to become a firefighter.
Jessica Ross said firefighting not only offers the opportunity for better pay, but may provide more time for the father to spend with his son.
Ross said the job would allow him to do what comes as second nature to him: help those who need it.
The Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson, Harold Johnson Jr.’s son, said those traits are bound to make Ross not only a good firefighter but a good father, too. The younger Johnson describes the “quick action of a young man that thought about someone else’s family before his family.”
“I think that is what fatherhood is about,” he said, “protecting others and protecting your own.”
Harold Johnson Jr. has now taken permanent residence at New Horizons nursing home in Gainesville. His son said it’s turned into a good situation.
“He’s just as happy as he can be,” the younger Johnson said. “Now he gets the proper attention he needs.”
While the younger Johnson said his father was at first disoriented by his new surroundings after the fire, he’s finally comfortable in his new setting. The New Horizons staff, he said, is taking good care of him.
Like it is for the Ross family, the aftermath of November’s fire is ongoing for the Johnsons. The elder Johnson is now working on the decision whether to demolish the house destroyed by the fire or try to salvage it. The younger Johnson said his father is now in the condition to make those decisions for himself “with dignity and pride.”
Obviously today won’t be Harold Johnson Jr.’s first Father’s Day, but his family is just as thankful to have him around for another. The children will make a trip today to visit the 76-year-old at New Horizons.
“Now we can celebrate this Father’s Day,” said the younger Johnson. “I have a wonderful father that really loves his children. I’m glad about that.”