When Lee Eckles headed off to the Coast Guard after attending Georgia Southern, he had his sights set on seeing the world and enjoying Statesboro from his rear view mirror. Fate, however, had a different plan for Lee and our community will forever be indebted to his service and commitment.
Lee's roots run deep in Bulloch County. He is the son of well known Statesboro Architect Ed Eckles and Statesboro socialite Betty Eckles. He graduated from Statesboro High along with his brothers Cliff and Danny. Even though his father Ed was "Mr. Georgia Tech", all three of the Eckle's boys attended GS. Both Cliff and Danny found their careers outside of Statesboro.
Lee went through EMT training in Charleston and was one of the first EMT's in the Coast Guard to be placed on a search and rescue vessel. After serving in the Coast Guard, he returned to Statesboro and began to look for opportunities to continue his service as an EMT. He soon discovered that Georgia didn't offer reciprocity so he found himself in Courtney Twilleger's EMT school at Swainsboro Tech.
Bulloch County EMS
In 1981, freshly minted as a Georgia EMT, Lee was hired on with Bulloch EMS which was then housed in Bulloch Memorial Hospital. Waymon Reese was the hospital administrator and Chuck Taylor was the EMS director.
The modern EMS service in Bulloch County was in its' infancy, being established in 1974 by the hospital. Cathy Pruitt York was the first director, followed by Don Franklin, Chuck Taylor then Lee Eckles and now Doug Vickers.
Ted Wynn, Bulloch County Public Safety Director, was actually the 10th EMT hired. Ted was a student then at GS, as were most of the EMT's at the time. Emory Melton was the first EMT in Bulloch County and Jack Bailey was the first Paramedic. Other EMT's that served during that period included Randy Turner, Glen Youmans, Doug Vickers and Barry Turner.
Chuck hired Lee and sent him to Paramedic school and shortly after graduation, Lee was named the Assistant Director.
When Taylor left in 1984, Lee was promoted to Director. A position he held until he was promoted to Deputy Director of Public Safety, under Wynn, in 2011. Doug Vickers followed Lee as Director.
Not long after Lee was hired on as Director, he hired me as an EMT. I was fresh out of EMT school and Bulloch EMS was my first job as an EMT. Bulloch EMS had a great reputation throughout the EMS community and was a highly sought after department by EMT's and Paramedics. I felt honored to make the cut and will forever be grateful to Lee for the opportunity and our friendship. Lee was even a groomsman in mine and Lori's wedding nearly 35 years ago.
Old Fire Station and Jail
"Chuck had moved the EMS to the abandoned fire station on Courtland street and had begun the process of renovating it. We had two ambulances, one primary and one backup. The EMT's slept in the old jail cells," recalls Lee Eckles. "The station didn't have bay doors so we protected the ambulances with a "cowbell alarm system" which included fishing line attached to cowbells."
Lee recall's the first budget he received for EMS was under $200,000. He and the team had to figure out how to do a lot with very little funding. The EMT's did most of the renovations to the station between emergency calls. They also sold raffle tickets and held fundraisers to buy needed equipment.
Fishing Extravaganza Fundraising Disaster
One of Lee's fundraiser ideas was a fishing extravaganza raffle. It included an old "fishing car"
along with a boat and fishing gear. Lee wasn't able to get a boat trailer donated so he tied the john boat on top of the car.
I was working fulltime at Statesboro CATV (Northland and now Vyve) and part-time as an EMT when Lee asked me to televise the drawing live. There was so much excitement in the community over the raffle, I agreed that it was a great idea. We borrowed the Gold Raffle tumbler from the Chamber and set up in front of First Baptist Church to use their cameras to broadcast.
Statesboro Mayor Hal Averitt agreed to join Lee and I live to do the drawing. Everything was going great until Lee drew the EMS Station's County Trustee Inmate as the winner. Lee asked me to go to a commercial break so he could figure out what to do. We didn't have an option to leave the live feed. To make this even more comical, the car caught on fire and burned with all the fishing gear inside it. We did,however, rescue the boat off the roof.
Through all of those calamities, Lee and the EMT's raised enough money to purchase a Lifepack Five portable cardiac monitor for the ambulances.
Serving and Leading
This "find a way attitude" Lee possesses is contagious. For three decades, Lee led Bulloch County EMS with the honor, high expectations and unparalleled commitment to providing every patient with the highest level of care possible that he expected of every team member.
Looking back, Lee says that he never accomplished anything singularly. He reminds me there is no me in team. What he attributes his success to is the ability to recruit and retain the courageous men and women that have worn the Bulloch County EMS uniform over the years. Each of these individuals are the most talented, dedicated and unselfish people he has ever known.
"There is no way Bulloch County could ever pay any of our team members adequately for the service they have provided to members of our community in their greatest time of need," said Lee Eckles. "No matter the obstacle, our staff has always been able to find a way to accomplish the task at hand."
It is difficult to have a conversation with Lee without getting an update on his wife Holli, son Blake and daughter-in-law Abbey, their children Barrett, 5 and Kennedy, 2 and daughter Marybeth and son-n-law Will Ball and their children Lucy, 5 and Liam, 2.
"I don't think it was ever my goal or intention to make public service a career. But when I stepped into the Director role the demands were so high and constant, that all I could do was enjoy the ride," said Lee Eckles. "There wasn't much time to think about myself or my future. It was really all about meeting the needs of our community. Then you blink, and now four decades have passed. This has truly been my dream job. Until I had grandchildren, I could never imagine retiring or stepping away."
After three decades of untiring commitment to our community rendering aid and assistance through EMS, often to strangers, he found himself in need of this service. On April 24, 2013 he boarded an Air Evac Medical transport plane to travel to Atlanta for a kidney and pancreas transplant. For 32 years Lee had been a brittle, insulin-dependent diabetic. That all changed with the transplant. Ten years later and very few complications, Lee counts his blessings for this gift from a stranger which has given him new life and energy.
Admirable legacy of service
Lee has been a wonderful mentor to me and so many through the last four decades. From my very first meeting, to my interview with him this week, he remains a constant force in my life and the lives of so many. Every second of every day Lee Eckles has dedicated his life to making others lives better in often unimaginable ways. I join the community in owing Lee a great debt of gratitude.
Lee realized post transplant how every day is a gift to him and his family. Every day he steps into the public safety building is an equal gift to our community.