Baldwin loses a leader

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The black limousines and fire trucks slowly made their way from Fullerton Funeral Home as family, friends and colleagues of William R. St. George Sr. gathered to mourn and remember a man who was known not only as a brave firefighter, but a loving father and husband.

"He touched so many people's lives," said St. George's daughter, Liz Vaught. "He was a great person and a great family man."

Hundreds turned out on July 6 to honor St. George - a commissioner, former chief and 30-year member of the Baldwin Fire Department, a member of the New York City Fire Department and an instructor at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy - who died of cancer on July 1. He was 51.

His loss struck a chord with many Baldwin residents as well as firefighters throughout the county and New York City, who described him as a selfless man and a good friend. He is survived by his family - his wife, Gail, and four children, Liz, Bill Jr., Tom and Tim - who praised him as a doting father who, while active in the community and fire department, always made time for his family. "He was a loving, caring husband," his wife said at the service. "He was always there for each one of his kids. We had so much fun as a family."

St. George became director of the Nassau County Association of Fire Districts this year. He had served in the FDNY's Special Operations Command, where he was part of an elite group of firefighters who respond to unique fire and emergency situations. On Sept. 11, 2001, St. George played a crucial role in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and it was a day that haunted him in subsequent years, friends said.

St. George remained active in the Baldwin community, serving as a PAL coach and president of the Baldwin Boosters Club and Friends of Baldwin Lacrosse, among other associations. He was always there cheering his children on at games, whether it was lacrosse, baseball or field hockey. "As each of his children grew and got into sports, he jumped right in," his wife said.

"He was involved in the community but never let it get in the way of his family," Liz said.

A man of principle

St. George was born on June 18, 1956, and was a lifelong Baldwin resident. He was the son of William V. and the late Marilyn St. George, and the brother of Jimmy, Bobby, Terry Tamburo and Kelly St. George-Walsh. A Baldwin High School graduate, he married Gail in 1978, having met her in school.

"We knew we'd spend the rest of our lives together," she said. Six of the greatest days in his life, she explained, were their wedding, the births of their children and the day he walked his Liz, who graduated from Baldwin High School in 1997, down the aisle to wed Brian Vaught.

"He was so proud of his children's accomplishments," Gail said.

St. George, whose father and grandfather were firemen, joined the Baldwin F.D. in 1977, and became a member of Hose 3. "It fit in with his general nature," said son Tom, a 2002 graduate of Baldwin High. "He always put [other] people before himself. He was very selfless."

Others echoed those sentiments, and said St. George could regularly be seen dashing off to an emergency in town. "As a little kid, every time I heard the fire whistle, I'd go to the front door just to see Billy tearing out of the house to get to the call," said Robert Warner, a former Baldwin resident who grew up across the street from St. George. "For me as a little kid, it was a big deal to live across the street from a real fireman. It was his 'drop everything you're doing right now because someone else is in trouble' outlook that ultimately led me to join the volunteer fire department when I left the Marine Corps."

At Hose 3, St. George rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the department's chief in 1988. Along the way, he formed strong bonds and friendships with his fellow firefighters. Longtime friend John Brown, chief of the Nassau County Fire Service Academy, served with St. George there. A deputy chief instructor since 1986, St. George was known for operating live burn operations and classroom instruction, and for implementing a national certification program for incident safety officers.

Brown remembered the days when their two families would get together and pack the kids in "Chief Brown's car" - as St. George dubbed it - for trips. "Billy was a good friend and my first deputy - his children and my children were in school together," said Brown, who is also a former chief of the Baldwin F.D. "When you're chiefs together, there's a bond that you never lose."

In 2000, St. George was elected to the department's Board of Commissioners, where colleagues noted his progressive thinking. He was known for modernizing the department, working to update the communications system and instituting mandatory annual physicals for firefighters, among many other initiatives.

"It was an untimely passing," said current Fire Chief Doug Wiedmann. "He was a big part of Hose 3, the Baldwin Fire Department and fire district. If we had a question, we went to Billy for an answer. I lost more than a commissioner; I lost a friend and mentor."

In 1989, St. George joined the FDNY, where he served at Engine 79 in the Bronx and Engine 236 in Brooklyn. On 9/11, as part of the Special Operations Command, his resiliency proved crucial, and in 2002 he was awarded the World Trade Center Rescuer Medal.

"On 9/11, we lost 25 percent of our guys from Special Ops," said Donald Hayde, a Special Operations Command battalion chief and a Baldwin resident. "Billy was responsible for getting those units up and running again. I always found Billy to be very serious when it came to a job - he was focused. But I think Billy, along with everyone else, felt survivor's guilt, whether you were there when the towers came down or after the fact."

St. George received numerous awards throughout his career, from Fireman of the Year to Nassau County's Gold Legion of Valor. But he never sought recognition, family and friends agreed, and shunned the spotlight. "Billy was such an integral part of the department, but you'd never know it," Wiedmann said. "He never looked for accolades. He just wanted what was best for the community and department."

St. George was known for his take-charge, straightforward attitude, and was the "king of multitasking," his wife said.

"He was a man of principle," said Bill Jr., a 1998 Baldwin High graduate. "He was very loyal, and trustworthy. My dad was the sort of person who would say, 'If you don't like it, don't do it.'"

And though he was amiable, St. George was known for his blunt honesty. "He was never malicious, but he'd let you know what he thought," Liz said.

As the Rev. Steven R. Camp explained at his service, St. George was known for his powerful, "you gotta be kidding me" expression when something wasn't right. "He was very matter-of-fact," Camp said. "You always knew where you stood with him. He was very genuine and real."

But to his family and friends, however, he was more than a headstrong leader; he was a loving father and husband. His wife recalled the fun times at Nunley's and the vacations in the Poconos, saying that her husband was always ready to pack a cooler and take a trip.

He was a fan of the Beach Boys, his daughter said, which was ironic, since he hated the beach, but would go just because he knew it made his kids happy. "He knew we wanted to be there and wanted us to have a good time," said Tom. "He'd come with his newspaper, hat and beach chair."

St. George remained stoic during his illness, and as Camp explained, did not give up. "We live with the memory that taught us to live in the present and to not give up on life," he said. "He always gave his best and never anything less - most of all as a husband and a father."

His youngest son, Tim, 14, who spent lots of time with his father at the firehouse, said, "He didn't make it hard to look up to him. He was a great guy, and my hero."

Comments about this story? Baldwineditor@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 207.