The Moose Walked Proud
One balmy night in the fall of 2000, an off-duty battalion chief, John Paolillo, stood outside an apartment fire on the Upper East Side when a police officer told everyone to clear the sidewalk. A reporter waited for Chief Paolillo, who was in street clothes, to flash his badge at the officer. But the chief just moved away.
He could be like that. Or not. When he was made captain of Engine 53 in East Harlem, he arrived at the firehouse with a few ideas on how things should run. The men gave him a nickname: Mussolini. But Chief Paolillo was a person big enough to realize an officer didn't need a heavy hand. The nickname was shortened: The Moose.
His theory on junior firefighters was that they should keep their mouths shut until they had enough years on the job to know a thing or two. He basked in company pride. Once a new firefighter stopped by Engine 53 before his first day and hopped on the rig when they got a call.
"So, how'd you get assigned to 53?" Chief Paolillo asked over the blaring siren. The new kid replied that, actually, it hadn't been his first choice. The driver slammed on the brakes. "Get out," Chief Paolillo said.
The Chief was impatient to save lives, and, at age 51, kept himself in top shape to do so. He brought firefighting manuals on vacation and read them on the beach. He ran marathons.
His younger brother, Joe, recalled once stopping by a firehouse with him to see a friend. A young firefighter they didn't know opened the door and greeted them curtly. Joe Paolillo waited for his brother to show his badge. But Chief Paolillo didn't.
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on March 10, 2002.