True tales of heroism
Windham resident reflects on a long firefighting career
In these undated photos provided by his family, Windham resident Jim Folan is shown at the height of his career with the Malden Fire Department. Folan, 86, now lives at the Windham Terrace Assisted Living Community but still enjoys sharing stories of his 34-year firefighting career with the younger generation of firefighters. (COURTESY)
Folan, 86, who lives at the Windham Terrace Assisted Living community, had the opportunity to share some of his stories Wednesday morning when staff at the Windham Fire Department joined him and his neighbors for a hearty breakfast.
Separated by generations but bonded by the innate desire to serve, the younger firefighters could no doubt relate to the real-life drama unfolding in Folan's tales.
There were stories with happy endings, such as the young woman he pulled from a burning building and the baby he helped bring into the world. And there were others that ended on a more tragic note - the distraught wife whose husband was stricken in front of the family Christmas tree and the two little boys who didn't make it out when their home burned.
Folan said he's always preferred to focus on the positive.
"It sounds corny, sure, but deep down I'd always wanted to do it," he said of his career choice. "Though it took me a while to find my way."
A native of Saugus, Mass., Folan, one of seven children, joined the Navy shortly after he finished his education.
After leaving the service, he worked in a box factory for a time before his strong yearning to make a difference in the lives of others led him to pursue a career in firefighting in his late 20s.
In the early 1950s, Folan recalled a very different fire department than the ones most are familiar with today.
"So much has changed since my days in the department," said Folan. "The uniforms, fire engines and even protocol are much different."
Working the 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift, the young Folan was quickly educated in the ways of the world.
"There was a lot of good, a lot of bad," he remembers. "Some of the stuff I've seen I can picture it like it were yesterday. I close my eyes and I see."
There were the many trips to Cape Cod and the cruise vacations he and his late wide, Rita, spent with his firefighter brothers and their families over the years.
There was the time during the famous blizzard of 1978 when Folan was out rescuing residents trapped when heavy waves flooded sections of Revere, Mass., when he navigated through the watery streets in white-out conditions.
And there were times that Folan and some fellow firefighters lent a hand to neighbors in need of somewhat less immediate assistance - pulling family cats out of trees and removing a fallen tree that had blocked a co-worker's driveway.
As the years went on, Folan embraced his career with all its highs and lows.
But after 34 years on the force, the father of three ultimately decided it was time to slow down.
"We'd go to a fire and it got to the point where I could no longer climb over a fence or crawl under a wall to get to that fire," he said with a laugh. "That's when it was time to hang it up."
After retiring at the age of 62, Folan spent many years caring for his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, at their Massachusetts home before coming to live at Windham Terrace.
Gathering in the community's cheerful dining room Wednesday morning, Folan and his friends were eager to catch up on the latest news with the local men and women in uniform.
"These firemen work so hard, especially this past winter in the cold and wind," Program Director Melanie Purcell said. "Just taking an hour out of our day to serve them breakfast still is not enough, but we are excited to honor them any way we can."
The local seniors maintain a close relationship with the Windham firefighters and Fire Chief Thomas McPherson said Folan has been by the station on several occasions, where he's delighted firefighters with his stories.
"All this and he's still smiling," Assistant Fire Chief Edward Morgan said of the veteran firefighter.
"I do miss the job," Folan told them. "Really, it doesn't matter whether you work for a big fire department or a small one. A fire is a fire and you've got to go in and get that devil!"
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