WOFD, VFW honor past chief killed in the line of duty

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Fire Department paid tribute to the only chief in its history to die in the line of duty with a memorial and dedication ceremony at the WOFD Headquarters on April 7.

Former Chief Martin T. Kennedy was honored exactly 75 years after he died of a heart attack while fighting a brush fire in town at the age of 61. And while no one currently in the WOFD ever had the chance to know Kennedy while he was alive, Chief Peter Smeraldo felt he should be recognized nevertheless. After all, Smeraldo said, Kennedy certainly deserves it.

“For anyone to lose his life in the line of duty serving his municipality is honorable,” Smeraldo told the West Orange Chronicle prior to the event. “It’s the ultimate sacrifice.”

Smeraldo came up with the idea of formally honoring his predecessor. The chief said he was rereading local historian John Dandola’s book on the history of the WOFD last year when it dawned on him that Kennedy had never truly been acknowledged for giving his life to the department. He wanted to rectify that, setting the gears in motion for the event held on the 75th anniversary of his death.

And it was certainly a fitting ceremony fitting, attracting such dignitaries as Mayor Robert Parisi, former fire Chief Frank Capron and members of the West Orange Township Council. After wreaths were placed in front of Kennedy’s new memorial and the WOFD memorial, Deputy Chief Paul Wannemacher led a bell ceremony in which a bell was rung five times in four bursts to commemorate the late chief. Such ceremonies, a tradition among fire departments for hundreds of years, are meant to signal a firefighter’s final end of duty.

Dandola himself even made a speech detailing Kennedy’s life — or at least what information could be found about it. The historian said the late chief was born the youngest of seven children to Irish immigrant parents living on White Street in 1881, which was a time the Irish “ruled the roost” in West Orange. In adulthood he joined the WOFD, where Dandola said in his address that Kennedy likely would have been involved with putting out the famous Edison Laboratory fire in 1914. Eventually he became the department’s second chief and, knowing the influence that his predecessor Chief James Sheehan had possessed, Dandola said he was likely handpicked for the job.

As for his personal life, Dandola said in his address that Kennedy married at a relatively late age and had a daughter in 1919. At different points, the historian said Kennedy lived on Llewellyn Avenue — which was populated mainly by civil servants and the help from Llewellyn Park — and High Street. But other than that, he said not much is known. He said he is just glad to see the late chief finally get his due.

“He was active to the very end,” Dandola said in his speech. “It really is fitting that he’s finally recognized.”

The ceremony was not just meant to honor Kennedy, though. It also served as the unveiling of the new Memorial Park, a small area in front of the headquarters featuring Kennedy’s memorial, the WOFD memorial, three new flagpoles and pavers depicting the department emblem. As such, members of VFW Post 376 were in attendance since the pavers and flagpoles were funded by a $5,000 donation from the veterans. A marker acknowledging the VFW was installed as a result.

But the VFW was not interested in garnering attention for itself when it donated the money. Deputy Mayor Ralph Panciello, who serves as the commander of Post 376, told the Chronicle his group is always looking for opportunities to help the West Orange community. So when he heard the WOFD could use some funding for the project, he said he insisted that it accept the VFW’s contribution and he even promised more monies, if needed.

To Panciello, the department is certainly deserving of the resources.

“It’s like when you’re in service — they’re always ready to go and put their life on the line,” Panciello said in an interview after the ceremony. “The fire department and the police department put their life on the line every time they go out. They do a service to the community just like the VFW is trying to do. They’re an important part of the town of West Orange.”

This event is far from the only collaboration that will take place between the WOFD and the VFW this year. Panciello said the department will help the veterans with their Flag Day ceremony on June 14, which is a tradition the two groups have worked together on for years. This summer they will also present a traveling Vietnam memorial wall at West Orange High School so that people can pay their respects to those who died without having to travel to Washington, D.C.

WOFD Capt. Steve Ameli said it is always an honor to partner with his father, Vietnam veteran Kim Ameli, and the rest of the VFW because veterans are why the United States remains free. But Ameli said he was especially proud to work with them in honoring Kennedy, who he pointed out still holds the record for the longest tenure in the department, with 38 years on the job. He also experienced every firefighter’s worst fear, he said — dying in the line of duty.

It is vital that firefighters like Kennedy and the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, be recognized for everything they do, Ameli said.

“We run in when everyone else is running out,” Ameli told the Chronicle before the event. “It’s an imperative service. It’s not for everybody, but those of us who do it do it with great pride and passion. (Those who die) deserve the utmost respect and acknowledgement.”

Photos by Sean Quinn