Remembered by friends for his commitment to firefighting and athletic excellence, Thomas Fennelly, a lifelong Baldwin firefighter and a retired member of the FDNY, died on Aug. 5. He was 67.
Although he moved to Wilmington, N.C., about 10 years ago, Fennelly spent his early years in Baldwin. He was born in Bronxville in 1951 to William Francis Fennelly and Florence Keim Fennelly.
He was a lifetime member of the Baldwin Fire Department Hose Co. 3, and served for a year as captain.
“Tommy Fennelly was not just an acquaintance or a fellow firefighter, but part of our fabric, one of the old crowd, a friend and brother — truly one of our own,” said Jerry Brown of the Baldwin Fire Department, a close friend of Fennelly’s. “We mourn with Tom’s family, and he will not be forgotten.”
Fennelly retired from FDNY Engine 303 and was also a fire marshal and chauffeur, his friends said.
“We both got on the FDNY on the same day, which was remarkable because we were working the same job previous to that,” recalled Robert O’Donnell, one of Fennelly’s close friends, who worked with him at Sanitary District 2 in Baldwin. “We were excited about that, except they booked the probationary class into a morning session and an afternoon session, and we got split apart, so we couldn’t carpool together to go to probie school at the time.”
They both joined the FDNY in 1981. Fennelly was assigned to three different engine companies throughout his career, O’Donnell said, adding that they shared the bond of working at the same fire company.
“We were actually personal friends for a very long time, and we both ended up meeting our wives for the very first time as teenagers at the same dance very early in our teenage lives,” he said. “We had quite a lot going on over our lives, and we’d talk back and forth, and we were old family friends.”
In his retirement, Fennelly developed pulmonary issues that friends said were linked to his time helping sort through the wreckage at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fennelly rushed to ground zero to work on “the pile.”
“He was so unassuming,” said Bob Noble, one of Fennelly’s closest friends. “He was just a laid-back type of guy that can get anything done — he was very practical. In general, he was just a great fireman — one that was really brave going in.”
His former fellow firefighters commended his desire to lend a hand.
“He was really a kind guy,” O’Donnell said. “Everybody at the firehouse would say that about Tom: ‘What a nice guy.’ He was always the guy who would help you with anything that you brought to him and put on his lap. He was always the guy to help you — a teacher and a helper.”
Fennelly’s friends also said he was a great athlete, performing well in softball, bowling and golf, among other sports.
“He was a terrific guy, very soft-spoken guy, but an absolutely outstanding athlete, tremendous bowler, terrific softball player,” Noble said. “He excelled in [sports] — anything he touched he excelled in as far as sports. He was on the Fire Department softball team for a number of years.”
“As he was playing golf,” O’Donnell recalled, “he’d be teaching you how to do things better.”
A memorial service was held at Andrews Mortuary Valley Chapel in Wilmington, N.C., on Aug. 15. Several Baldwin and New York City firefighters flew to North Carolina to attend the service and pay tribute to their friend.
“For over 40 years, Tom Fennelly served the Baldwin community by giving of his time and talents,” said Baldwin Fire Chief Lee Streithorst. “The members of the Baldwin Fire Department benefitted from Tommy sharing the many lessons he learned over his years as a New York City firefighter. He will be greatly missed.”
“He would always have his own opinion, despite what the group was trying to say,” O’Donnell said. “We would reflect on that sometimes. Sometimes you got to give somebody credit for that, not just going along with what the group says, but have his own opinion.”
Fennelly is survived by his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Fennelly, and their four children, Bridget Rivera, William Fennelly, Thomas “TJ” Fennelly and Katie Watkins. Also surviving are his siblings, Madeline Fennelly, William Dennis Fennelly, Meg Joseph, Martin Fennelly, Kathleen Walker and Mary Rosen, as well as several grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a brother, John Fennelly.
Family and friends said he loved his family, including his many nieces and nephews as well as his brothers and sisters-in-law.
“When you lose someone that you traveled through this life with,” Brown said, “you remember the graduations, the parties, barbecues, each other’s weddings, the softball fields, our neighborhood hangouts, the birth of each other’s children and loss of each other’s parents, celebrating each other’s first fires and the ups and downs of a lifetime of service. Now we must suffer the loss of one of our own, a piece of our past.”