Every so often you meet someone who fills a hole in your life. They play the roll of friend, mentor, coach, father figure, boss or comrade. I met Jim, affectionately known as the ‘Old Man’, by way of Turn of River Fire Department (TRFD). I landed there when an old ladder engine parked behind the building caught my eye. I stopped and asked if I could set up my easel and paint over a period of days. During that week, the Old Man, among others, introduced himself. He came off as a fun-loving and good-natured Grandpa type but over the years I would come to discover that beneath that persona was a shrewd, insightful sage.
My impression, in the context of this particular fire company, was that there was a subtle secondary mission/tradition aside from the primary goal of fire fighting and public safety. The organization seemed to act as a lure, drawing in wandering souls, mostly adolescent men, who were seeking something other than fire fighting. In addition to the thrills, they sought leadership, roll models, guidance, a sense of purpose and fraternity. Within the company there were always several generations of veteran firemen to set an example for the newly adopted volunteer strays. In a way it seems that to mentor these young men was as important as the training they would receive to fight fires. Perhaps I developed this impression because of what I witnessed with regards to the Old Man’s roll in the fire department.
Over his 35 year membership at TRFD he had a lot of time to develop a keen sense of identifying the struggling or misguided. He would befriend these individuals quietly shepherding them with support and encouragement. I think he was as much admired for these qualities as he was for his playful nature.
When the Old Man passed this spring, leading members of the grieving fire department wanted to honor his memory and said that they were going to dedicate the conference room in his name. They asked me for suggestions on how to present the newly dedicated room. I gave them some ideas on how to physically and tastefully mark the space but I suspected that what they really wanted was a portrait. At the time, I too was grieving and not in the frame of mind to attempt the project.
Over the years I knew him, I had often playfully encouraged the Old Man to sit for a portrait. What he may not have known was that I was dead serious. He had kind of elongated, weathered features, a shock of grey hair and was perpetually wearing a baseball hat. He was without a doubt a real character. Since we were both avid jazz fans, I had even tried to entice him by offering to fill the sessions with endless doses of Stan Getz, Erroll Garner and the like. His self-effacing nature and never-ending work schedule would not allow it.
When I finally settled in to posthumously depict him, all I had as a model was a low-res digital photo that I had snapped the previous summer when I stopped by the Corporate Office Park, where he seemed to be always on duty. There too he was an endeared and long time member of the staff.
The photo was a classic representation of the Old Man and included all the markers that he was well known for: cell phone to his ear, wearing his blue work shirt and baseball hat, in his breast pocket a glimpse of a pack of cigarettes (which he was supposed to have quit), standing in front of his green pick up truck, which was parked next to what he referred to as the ‘round building’ with its distinctive 1960s architecture in the Corporate Office Park. The composite of all these elements somehow captured the essence of him.
Upon completion I had some concerns where the portrait should go since there might be several interested parties. I came back to the original solicitation by the fire department to honor the person who had touched so many. It seemed fitting that the Old Man (in the form of the portrait) would continue to look over and supervise Turn of River Fire Department and those who work there