By Steve Sears
They may no longer fight fires, but they still support the Wayne Fire Department that they loved to serve with.
Per Charlie Cunningham, firefighting is a young person’s game, but he and a few other up-in-years former firefighters remember battling blazes and will always be there to offer support to current firefighters.
“I became a Junior Fire Fighter at age 15,” says Cunningham, recalling 1960 and his first putting on a firemen’s uniform. “My best friend’s father was a fireman, who lived across the street and I would see him respond to fire calls and I would talk to him about the fire department. It aroused my curiosity. Mr. Rooney took me to the fire house one night when they had a Junior Fireman night and I joined. I was there for two years becoming President for one-year (1961 – 1962) learning firematic duties, helping the firemen around the station, cleaning the apparatus, and various other details.”
Cunningham, who will soon be 75 years old, has served 50 years and is currently a trustee. Over the years, he was President of Wayne Township Fire Officers Association, Jaycees Fireman of the Year in 1974, and has held numerous other titles, all of which are special to him. But a few are most significant. “My proudest memories as a fire fighter is being elected as Chief of P.O.L. Fire Co. #2 – 1974-1975, 1976, 1977, 1978 and Chief of Department, Commissioner in 1976, 1993-1994, and Jaycees Fireman of the Year.”
Cunningham tries currently stay involved by being as active as he can, driving the apparatus, doing house and truck maintenance. He is also Chairman of the Building Committee for a proposed addition (2012 -2019) in addition to other committees.
“Why am I proud to be a Fireman? There is no other profession beside a First Responder (Firefighter, Police, EMT) that will run into danger instead of running from it. I wanted to give back to the town that I grew up in and help my friends and neighbors feel safe. There is a certain camaraderie in the fire service. You become a family. You will always have each other’s backs. You may have different religious beliefs, different political opinions, but when a call comes in, you become a cohesive team, working together under difficult conditions.”
“I was 27 years old,” states 89-year-old Gregory Velardi, Sr. “My older brother Nat and I joined together in February of 1956. We joined because many of our friends had joined the fire company, so there was a social aspect to it, but Wayne was a growing community, and since I lived here all my life, my brother and I thought it was a great way to give back to our community.” He and Nat both represented P.O.L. Fire Company #2.
He has a few vivid memories. “Back in 1961 all the members at the time pitched in and we built our own firehouse on Willow Place. The firehouse was knocked down back in the mid 80’s with the widening of Route 23. I was also one of the committee members for the construction of our new firehouse on Alps Road and Route 23.” He also recalls responding to and pumping at the fire at the old Butler rubber mill in the late 1950’s. “At the time that fire was the largest loss fire in the United States.” Fires at the old Two Guys department store in Totowa also jar his memory. Then, there are the fun times. “In the summer of the 60’s and 70’s the fire company used to run a ‘Firemen’s Fair’ at Parish Oval, and in different parking lots in the Willowbrook (Mall) area. My wife Eleanor who was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary, and I used to work in the food tent cooking and serving food.”
Velardi’s current health doesn’t allow him to be as active as he once was, but he tries to attend the bi-annual breakfast buffet, and often listens to calls on the fire scanner.
“One of the most noble things a person can do is to serve their community and their fellow man. The best way I knew how to do that was to become a volunteer firefighter.”
“At one time my brother and I were one of five sets of brothers that belonged to fire company #2. Charlie Cunningham who you are also interviewing is also one of those sets of brothers. Along with my brother, at one time all 3 of my nephews were members of the fire company, and presently my 2 sons, and my 3 grandchildren are members of the company, so I’m proud to have started a tradition that my family continues by serving the community of Wayne. One of the proudest moments of my career as a firefighter was after 50 years of service, the members of my fire company approached the State of NJ to have the ramp in front of the firehouse named in my honor.”
73-year-old Barry Kiefte became a firefighter in 1976 courtesy of a suggestion by his friend, Paul Vanderwal, who was a firefighter in Prospect Park at the time. He serves at Chief Tony Czapka’s Wayne Fire Company #3
“The Minns Avenue fire, where we lost a grandfather and two children,” he says, when asked what his most vivid firefighting memory is.
Kiefte, who drives the apparatus during the day, is very proud of two things. “I volunteered in the service for my country and volunteered in the fire department for my community.” He also values greatly seeing “individuals come in as kids and grow up to be officers and still serving.”