NEWARK, NJ - Thomas O’Reilly always wanted to be a firefighter, but he joined the Newark police instead in 1956 and eventually rose to the rank of chief.
His affinity for the fire department never ended though. That was apparent before his funeral today at St. Mary's Church at the Newark Abbey, where both police and former firefighters remembered him.
“There were two lists," said Don Gilmartin, a retired firefighter and drum major with the Essex County Emerald Society Police and Fire Pipe Band. "The police department called him first."
O’Reilly died Thursday at St. Barnabas Medical Center from complications of colon cancer, a family member told the police division. He was 84.
Rows of police officers and officials saluted as O'Reilly's casket, draped in an American flag, was carried out of the church. A police helicopter also flew overhead before the procession headed to a cemetery in East Hanover.
The former police chief was a lifelong Newark resident. His parents were Irish immigrants who lived on Sherman Avenue. Those who knew O'Reilly said he would always hang out around a nearby firehouse as a kid, and that’s where his love for the fire department began.
Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose, who took over after O’Reilly retired in 1999, had a modern version of the old Engine 10 take part in the funeral procession. It was one way of honoring his predecessor’s past ambition.
"I became the chief in 1999 when he retired,” Ambrose said after the funeral mass. “We remained friends and he was a big help to me. Until the day he died, I went to visit him up at the hospital.
"His life was the police department and I mirrored him a lot...I remember him saying, ‘If that's your life, you'll always succeed.’”
O'Reilly got his start at the 2nd Precinct in 1957. He was drafted into the Army just a month after he was assigned there but would report back to duty in Newark after two years.
Before becoming police chief, he worked in just about every area of police work: walking his beat, detective work, and training bureaus.
His Irish heritage was always a sense of pride to him too. He was once grand marshal of Newark's St. Patrick's Day parade in 1996. A devout Catholic, he often spoke about the time he accompanied Pope John Paul II on his trip to Newark, according to his obituary.
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura said O’Reilly was his instructor in the police academy in 1967. Fontoura got his start with the Newark police and served on the department for 24 years.
“He was very committed to this city. He gave his entire profession, career, and life to the city,” Fontoura said, later adding, “Everything I learned about the police force, in the beginning, I learned from him.”
Even to current Newark police officers, like Detective Dan Eames, the former top cop always made time for those in lower ranks.
“He was a cop's cop” said Eames, who has been with the force since 1995. “He was always there to help the police officers.”