Devoted dad, firefighter Kevin O'Toole 'got things done'
He was a man of few words, Captain Kevin O'Toole. Like so many men and women of his generation, he spoke best with his actions and that was more than enough.
Last month, several hundred of his admirers followed suit and spoke with their feet, flying from as far as Ireland to pay final tribute to a stalwart Dorchester man and proud firefighter who relished his roots and made sure his children did, too.
Kevin O'Toole died at age 72 on Nov. 27 in a Boston hospital after a brief and unexpected illness. He left behind his wife of 48 years, Mary (McColgan), six children, 14 grandchildren.
O'Toole was a firefighter for three decades, retiring in 2000 as a captain. For ten years, he supervised the Boston Fire Department's arson squad. Most of career was spent fighting fires based out of the Engine 18 house at Peabody Square.
He was highly respected - a madman at a fire scene, one colleague recalled. But, to a man, each firefighter who came to know and respect Kevin O'Toole over the years knows that the job always came second.
"He was the best family man that I ever knew," said Deputy Chief William Rice, who suceeded O'Toole in commanding the arson squad. "He cared for his children and grand-children better than anyone I met in my life. He was concerned with every aspect of their lives."
O'Toole was the second of nine children born to Irish emigrant parents - Stephen and Mary Ann- on Shepton Street in St. Mark's parish. As a child of the depression, what time O'Toole spent out of the classroom at St. Mark's was devoted to helping the family make ends meet. At 11, he was driving a horse team through the city's Haymarket district and the North End. When the Korean War flared, O'Toole forged his mother's signature to enlist in the Marine Corps at the age of 17. He never saw combat, but his time spent in the corps was the formative experience of his young life.
"He was 14 years on ladder 18 in Ashmont and he loved it because it was about a 90 percent Marine house," says longtime friend and neighbor Rodney Horton, himself a retired fire lieutenant. "He liked them because he knew what their training was like."
He also loved the Peabody Square house because it was a busy company, with multiple calls a night.
"He took me under his wing," said Bob Graham, who spent his entire career as a firefighter at the Peabody Square house. "Kevin taught me everything about the job. He was a wonderful example of what to do at a fire. He was the leader of the house."
When there were lulls, O'Toole turned his energies to organizing just about all facets of firehouse life. He shopped. He counseled. He set up a weekly kitty that each fireman paid into to pay for groceries and organized summertime barbeques and Christmas parties for the families.
And, always, he cooked.
"He was a heck of a cook," remembers his daughter Beth (O'Toole) Emery. "Years ago, he would serve 400 people at Florian Hall. He just loved doing it."
When he was promoted to lieutenant and then captain, O'Toole missed the action of the firehouse, but threw himself into the new roles. His decade at the arson squad - known formally as the Fire Investigation Unit - was spent modernizing the department's techniques and training.
"He helped make this fire investigative unit what it is today," said Chief Rice.
Throughout much of his fire career, O'Toole worked a second job that he took equal pride in: meat cutter. He worked at the Codman Square First National supermarket until the late 1970s when it closed. Like so many other firemen whose meager salaries in those years required other incomes, O'Toole had a growing family to support. He and Mary eventually had six kids of their own: Elizabeth, Kathleen, John, Stephen, Jennifer and Ann.
A consummate organizer, O'Toole joined a small group of fellow firemen in forming the Boston Gaelic Fire Brigade in 1982. The pipe and drum group performs at ceremonies and funerals for fire families and travels the U.S. and Ireland. O'Toole was president of the brigade at the time of his passing.
"He loved the fire brigade," recalls Horton, "because it allowed him to reconnect to Ireland. On our first trip there in 1982, he spent the night in the same bedroom where his mother slept in before she left Ireland. It meant a lot to him. And he kept that connection all these years."
O'Toole thrilled at traveling to his parents' native land, but he never strayed far from the home he - and his Savin Hill bride Mary McColgan- knew best. And while he was never one to wear it on his sleeve, he took pride in his longtime Milton Avenue address.
"He loved it here," Beth says. "He didn't say it a lot, but he didn't have to. At a time in the sixties when he bought the house, a lot of people were saying, 'You're crazy, you'll be gone in five years.' He took great pride in saying I'm still here. And all of his kids are here too."
Tragedy struck Kevin's life in 2000 when his daughter Ann became ill with cancer and later died. Together with his wife Mary and his remaining children - Kevin leaned on his tight-knit fire family for support, and like many of his era, kept fighting on.
"He was among the special breed of brave men who run into buildings other people are running out of," his son John said at the funeral last month at Saint Brendan's church. "He made us all proud."