True Tales from Canton’s Past: Naming Rights

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Chief Fitzpatrick gazes at the names of the retired firemen that served under his command.

Chief Fitzpatrick gazes at the names of the retired firemen that served under his command.

There was a moment this past Saturday, a quiet time at the end of the event, where Jim Fitzpatrick went over to the newly dedicated Fireman’s Memorial and just sat on the granite bench and paused. Everyone had left and the small park was deserted. Hardly anyone noticed as the venerable Chief looked over the names engraved on the stone monument. And that is when the memories flooded across his face and he smiled. He traced their names, and their friendship was rekindled.

James Fitzpatrick has many names. He’s called “Fitzy” and Jim, but most people simply call him “Chief.” And that is what he will always be to myself and countless other friends in this small community. And whenever the Chief thinks about Canton, it is never any bigger than in his memory. What this man can recall is a miracle unto itself. There are times when the Chief will start a conversation that goes something like this: “It was a Tuesday in June, 1972 — no, no, I’m wrong, it was a Wednesday. I know it was because I had been away that afternoon and only got back to Canton mid-week.” Chief is just that good with details. Even the minutest specifics are recalled with absolute clarity. He can go to any given property in town and tell you all the hidden pipes and drains that lay beneath the surface and forgotten to time.

A Canton boy through and through, he was born at 226 Sherman Street in a small house where his parents rented an upstairs apartment. This author lives at 225 Sherman Street, and when researching this story I expressed amazement at the coincidence, and the Chief gently reminded me that, “George, I’ve told you this many times before.” In fact, years ago, he had sat at my kitchen table hulling strawberries for a fundraising event and today he reminded me of that very conversation. How is this even possible? I marvel. And such is the truth.

Chief went to public schools in Canton, largely growing up on Pond Street, and when it came time for high school he went to a trade school in Norwood followed by a stint at Fitchburg State for three years. When pressed as to why he didn’t graduate, he explained that his “philosophy didn’t agree with the dean.” Read between the lines and you come to understand that this is an obstinate man who has unwavering views on what is right. And throughout his career, our Chief always did what was right.

That tenacious spirit is what captured the Board of Selectmen’s attention when they needed to replace an outgoing chief in 1978. Just a year before, the prior chief had given his notice. Donald Podgurski, then a selectman, recalled that the board was prepared to offer the job to Tom Ronayne, Jr., the deputy chief. “On the weekend before the vote, Tommy called me at 5 a.m. and exclaimed that he had been up all night and that he just couldn’t take the job.” Podgurski explained that the selectmen opened the application process and they received eight letters of interest. “The one that everyone stood behind was Fitzy,” he said. Two months later, Fitzpatrick became chief.

And so the former mechanic and line firefighter became chief. That mechanical background was at the core of everything he did. In fact, since these were difficult financial times in Canton, every single piece of fire apparatus was an amalgam of parts scrapped from every conceivable junkyard within a 50-mile radius. The story has been told that in the hands of the Chief a ladder truck could have the fender from an old truck that ran in Brockton, the bumper from a rig in Stoughton, and the running boards from a retired engine in Milton. The Yankee ingenuity was only matched by his dedication. Every fireman’s wife knows that she is the second love and the first love is the job. On one particular eve of a vacation to the Cape, the phone rang at 11 p.m. and Doris Fitzpatrick handed the receiver over to her husband and flashed a look as if to say, “This better not change our plans.” That call to the Chief resulted in a report that Engine 4 was in the woods with its axles broken. The Chief dutifully got the engine hauled out of the swampy woods and had the machine back in full repair by 9 a.m. the next morning and was on the road to Cape Cod with family in tow later that same morning.

Not that a vacation was ever truly a vacation for this man. Anne Benson, the Chief’s daughter, recalls, “We’d be down the Cape waiting outside at whatever fire station it was he decided to stop at and go inside and talk to whoever about whatever.” And the family knew that there was always the love of career and town that drove this man.

The gathering in 1964 at the first dedication of Firehouse No. 2 in Canton (Courtesy of the Canton Fire Department)

The gathering in 1964 at the first dedication of Firehouse No. 2 in Canton (Courtesy of the Canton Fire Department)

And there is another distinction that stands behind this man. There is a unique law in Massachusetts that governs fire chiefs. By state statute, Massachusetts has two types of fire chiefs, commonly referred to as strong chiefs and weak chiefs. The difference has to do with the mechanism available to the Board of Selectmen’s ability to remove a chief from his position. A strong chief can only be removed for “cause,” while a weak chief is an “at will” employee. And when James Fitzpatrick was hired he advised the Board of Selectmen to sit down with town counsel and get a primer on what they could and could not do when it came to his role as a “strong chief.”

It was a prescient move, for the Chief was constantly under fire, most notably by the Finance Committee who always tried to tell him how to run the department — and always to no avail. Chief was a thorn in the side to many, even by his own admission. In the end, the men that stood beside him on the front lines of devastating fires always knew that he had their backs.

No more apparent was that fact than on September 15, 1982, at 3 a.m., when the call came in for a fire at Tobe Deutschmann’s barn in Ponkapoag that was full of capacitors loaded with PCBs. The Chief had been working with then Board of Health Agent Gina McCarthy — now the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — to clean up the farm. Early on in the fire he made the call to the Canton school superintendent to close the nearby schools and keep children inside. In a call to McCarthy he said, “Hey Regina, that barn that we’ve been trying to get cleaned up, that place is going to the moon and I thought you’d like to know,” as odd-smelling smoke spread health concerns through the town. The fog hung low and trapped the noxious fumes in the valley surrounding the fire. To this day, no one really knows the lasting damage of that fire.

And now as he sat on the bench at the Fireman’s Memorial, he read the names of the men who were there that night. Chris Bainton, James Sullivan, Bernard Semel, Dave Perry, and Bucky Doody. They all had one form of cancer or another, and while there is never a way to draw cause and effect, all firemen know what they are doing is extremely hazardous — even when the scars do not emerge until later in life. Our Chief made sure that after the fire in Ponkapoag he filed paperwork on every one of the men who were there that night — more than 35 names submitted to the retirement board, guarding them in case they were affected by the cancer in the air that engulfed the town.

It’s funny how life can move so fast and then one day you start to see what it was all about. The crowd gathered around the brick wall of Firehouse No. 2. The entire Fire Department stood in their dress uniforms, just as they had done in 1964 when they originally dedicated the building. It was a carbon copy 52 years later. The Chief and his family drew back a cloth to reveal a new bronze plaque naming the station in honor of his service as Canton’s longest-serving career fire chief. It was a long journey for a man who had started out as an on-call substitute firefighter in 1958 earning $97.65 a week for 48 hours of work. Today was the day of his naming rights, and while the plaque reads his full name, we will simply continue to honor him by calling him Chief.

 

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