When a memorial service for Firefighters Michael Boyle and David Arce, best friends from their childhoods in Westbury, L.I. to their deaths during the Sept. 11 rescue efforts, was held on Nov. 5, 2001, Michael’s father, Jimmy Boyle, arranged for it to be at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Congressman Peter King, and ex-Gov. Hugh Carey and former Mayor Ed Koch among the dignitaries on hand.
For the elder Boyle’s funeral service exactly 18 years later, Mr. Giuliani was among the mourners and Mr. King once again delivered a eulogy, this time to a packed house in St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in Westbury. (Mr. Carey and Mr. Koch are deceased.)
More Celebratory Than Sad
The proceedings lacked the majesty conveyed by St. Pat’s, but where that 2001 service had been shaded in the tragedy of the loss of two young men in the prime of their careers and the 338 colleagues who had perished with them, the atmosphere in St. Brigid’s had some sadness but was far more a celebration of the rich life of the former leader of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and his knack for making people smile up to and beyond his final breath Oct. 27 at age 80.
At a wake the night before the service, one of his relatives noted that as the cancer with which he had waged a long, tough battle began to wear him down and spread to his brain, Mr. Boyle had been insistent on one aspect of his eventual send-off: he wanted “a firefighter’s funeral.”
He got that: the closing-off of several blocks of Post Ave. 20 minutes before the service was supposed to begin, the parade past the church of the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums playing “Amazing Grace” followed by a fire-truck from Engine Co. 217 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Mr. Boyle began his career in 1962 and continued to visit long after he rose to the top of the UFA 21 years later and well into his retirement. Among those lining the street in review of the procession were current UFA President Gerard Fitzgerald and a past leader of the union, Kevin Gallagher; Uniformed Fire Officers Association leader Jake Lemonda, older fire-union officials including Tom Henderson and Tom LaMacchia, and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro and his predecessor, Sal Cassano.
At least as pleasing to Mr. Boyle would have been the hundreds of Firefighters and Fire Officers—some from other cities—who strode into the church for the service. Looking out at the full pews, Congressman King remarked: “Jimmy would have loved this: standing room only.”
Stature Didn’t Change Him
They had both grown up in Sunnyside, Queens, he said, and where Mr. King made his life in Washington, D.C., Mr. Boyle—more liberal than him politically—had also developed friendships with Presidents, most notably George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But, the Congressman added, “No matter how high he rose, Jimmy was always a guy from the neighborhood.”
He had always been generous, with his own money as well as the union’s, when it came to supporting him politically, Mr. King said. By the same token, “Nobody asked me for more favors in my life than Jimmy Boyle. But it was never for himself—it was always for the other guy,” with the last request coming just six weeks prior to his death.
When they spoke for the last time two weeks before that, the Long Island Congressman continued, Mr. Boyle moved the conversation away from his worsening condition to ask a series of pertinent questions: “What’s goin’ on with impeachment? How big is my funeral gonna be? Who’s gonna be the Mets manager; De Grom oughtta get the Cy Young, Alonzo the Rookie of the Year.”
He recalled Mr. Boyle making it down from Rochester, where he and his wife Barbara had moved because three of their four surviving children and four of their seven grandkids were living there, for this year’s Sept. 11 ceremonies in lower Manhattan. “He was obviously very sick,” Mr. King said, but was also cracking jokes and saying, “Don’t worry about me—I’ll be around for a long time.”
‘A Gift to All of Us’
The next eulogist, Tim Brown, a close friend and retired Firefighter from Rescue Co. 3, said Mr. Boyle “was a gift to all of us. He welcomed everyone he met into his heart…here was the magic: he saw us, he saw who we were. He connected with us, and he connected us with others.”
Speaking of Mr. Boyle’s work as UFA president and his generosity with his time after he retired from the FDNY in 1993, Mr. Brown said, “No one in the history of the department did more for firefighters than Jimmy did.”
And yet he was never re-elected as the union’s leader, gaining his second term five years after he had been voted out of office, with both contests decided by wage contracts that displeased union delegates who were particularly tough to please during the 1980s. He decided not to seek re-election in 1993 after yet another contract he had negotiated was rejected by the delegates.
Alluding to the innovative wrinkles in the first contract he negotiated in 1985 that made it easy for critics to cast doubts about its value to the rank and file, Firefighter Brown said, “Jimmy’s ideas were often complex. He surprised people with his intellect.”
Ran Over Bridge on 9/11
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, he continued, Mr. Boyle, who at that point was 62 and working for Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, ran across the Brooklyn Bridge, then made a brief detour. Knowing that for the February 1993 Trade Center bombing that did far less damage and caused only seven deaths, the terrorists watched it unfold from the upstairs floor of J&R Music World, Mr. Brown said, Jimmy sprinted into that now-closed record store along Park Place “to track them down,” only to discover they hadn’t gotten that close to the scene of this crime. He had been intent on capturing them, his old friend told the crowd, but “he never explained how he was gonna do this alone.”
Mr. Boyle then headed to the North Tower of the Trade Center, only to get caught in its implosion, knocked off his feet and briefly blinded by the thick cloud of dust it created. It would not be until weeks later that he found his son Michael’s turnout coat while searching in the ruins, and then other bits of his remains. “Today we can rejoice because Jimmy finally found his beloved son Michael,” Firefighter Brown said.
When he moved to Rochester, he noted, “He quickly became friends with firefighters from Canandaigua and Rochester City, and with the ladies who sold him coffee at Wegman’s.”
Mr. Boyle used to describe himself as the “firehouse liberal” at his old engine company in Brooklyn, but what made him unique, Mr. Brown said, was that he “could talk politics with anyone” without it becoming an argument because he was so good at seeing the other person’s point of view.
An Enthusiastic Texter
When he was no longer able to drive, he continued, his I-phone became his principal means of staying in touch with the large circle of people he cared about, ending his texts with a heart symbol, or “love.”
“We all knew, when the texts stopped coming, he was in trouble,” Mr. Brown said.
The homily was delivered by Father Thomas Healy, visiting from Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Queens, who by one of those happy coincidences that seemed to run through Mr. Boyle’s life, had grown up in the same building with him on a different floor.
For the first 20 years of their lives, Father Healy said, “We saw each other every day. We were a family.”
They both got “an extraordinary education” in Catholic schools in the neighborhood and played in the same park on 43rd Street.
“He wasn’t a great student,” Father Healy recalled, but after serving in the military and finding his way to the Fire Department because, Mr. Brown had previously said, Jimmy and Barbara had gotten engaged and his mother Grace thought “he needed a secure income,” the priest said, “He took off.”
Brought Out His Best
The Fire Department, he told the gathering, “brought out in Jimmy, wow, extraordinary qualities,” among them a desire to give to those around him. “He didn’t want to look good,” Father Healy said, “he wanted to help that person.” He remembered telling one of Mr. Boyle’s sisters, “Jimmy has the heart of a priest.”
He continued, “Jimmy had a hard time with cancer; he suffered a lot…But he knew what love was. He wasn’t a saint; he was a good, wonderful person.”
Father Healy concluded, “We gave him a great send-off, and isn’t this a wonderful way to say thank you to Jimmy? Thank you for bringing us together to remember who you were.”
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