HACKENSACK, N.J. — Abraham Lincoln once said, “It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
The same can be said about another great leader on the local level, Hackensack’s Richard Kubler. For the 53 years he was alive, the lifelong fireman, father and grandfather had special precepts he lived by that formed the foundation of his character: “It is what it is” and, “What’s meant to be, will be.” Not one to focus on what he couldn’t control, Kubler chose to put all his energy -- not into sitting around at home and “crying and moping” when life wasn’t working in his favor, his brother Robert recalls – but on living. Not even a terminal cancer diagnosis in October 2019 was enough to hold him back from living the life he always wanted. Instead, he chose to sustain the positive attitude he upheld his entire life: being productive and of service.
“He never languished or waivered in his spirit,” recalled his wife Susan.
Perhaps putting others ahead of himself accounted for the very agent that shortened his life. But for Kubler, whom his family remembers a selfless individual, it was a way of life. Flashback to the day after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Kubler was among a band of brave firefighters from the Hackensack Fire Department that were called down to assist in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero. While his brother Robert recalled local firemen being reluctant to go given the danger the area posed (best friend and fellow fireman Bobby Burgos recalled the endeavor like entering a war zone that looked like a surreal scene out of a middle eastern country that was detonated with a bomb that you’d see on TV) Kubler didn’t think twice. He “ran right in” with the rest of the members of his department, as his brother recalled.
In the week that followed, the men trudged heaps of debris, digging for victims, wetting the streets down, and manning a bucket brigade to help remove the rubble of Manhattan’s two iconic, 110-story skyscrapers that were pulverized and turned to dust following the senseless hijacking of terrorists orchestrated to crash two airplanes successively into each of the buildings that fateful morning.
Kubler’s daughter Lauren, 24, was entering kindergarten at the time, and vaguely recollects being picked up early from school and knowing that her dad’s job was to help others. Looking back at one of America’s most infamous and unforgettable days in history, Lauren calls her father’s feat “incredible.”
“He always told me as a firefighter, that he doesn’t know if he’s going to come home,” she said, adding that in that particular lifestyle, the family had always been subconsciously prepared for the worst.
In the years following 9/11, Rich married his second wife, Susan, a hospice nurse. She described the pair as having a “servant’s heart” who understood each other’s around-the-clock schedules.
“I don’t like to see people suffer,” she said by phone. “I will do what I can to lessen that burden. When this all came down, I thought, ‘This was my destiny for this journey.’”
Flash-forward almost two decades later in October 2019, Kubler had served as a professional fireman on the Hackensack Fire Department for 21 years until what would be his last day on the job last fall after sporadically falling ill. After a trip to Hackensack University Medical Center, he sought treatment for a gastrointestinal bleed and discovered he was in need of blood platelets, which the hospital had a shortage of given their brief shelf-life following donation. A CAT scan revealed an aggressive malignant tumor in Kubler’s liver; the cancer had already advanced to Stage 4. Due to his low platelet level, doctors were initially unable to perform a biopsy to commence treatment. Platelets are miniscule blood cells that come to the body’s aid when a blood vessel is damaged in order to adhere to the injury and form clots to cease bleeding. After doctors managed to secure the platelets he needed, he went for a consultation at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. It was conjectured that his exposure to the toxic chemicals from working at Ground Zero was the causation of his cancer.
For the rest of his life, he received treatment from New England Cancer Specialists, an affiliate of Dana-Farber, via a satellite office in Maine. On the heels of his diagnosis, Kubler championed blood platelet donations, asking the community at large to donate to blood centers like Vitalant, a nonprofit with local offices in Paramus, Parsippany and Montvale, that collects blood from volunteer donors and provides blood products and services across the country.
Despite given one month to live, Kubler, who had prided himself on being what Robert called “two steps ahead of everyone” and taking the reigns of his own destiny, had already spent the previous two years prepping for his retirement. In 2017, his wife Susan made the move up north to Wiscasset, a picturesque town in Lincoln County, Maine where he vacationed as a child, after securing a job there and where the couple purchased a house. Upon falling ill, Kubler relocated to Maine where he continued cancer treatment and was cared for by his wife. He wound up living for nine months after his diagnosis until he succumbed to the disease in the early morning hours of Saturday, July 25 surrounded by his family.
Following the Hackensack Fire Department’s announcement of his death, the department called him “an inspiration to all who worked with him and knew him” and support poured in from the community: “Rich was a great guy and neighbor. Condolences to his family and Hackensack Fire Department brothers. RIP Rich, your tour is over,” read one, while another said, “A battle fought so bravely. Be at peace, without pain” and, “Rest in eternal peace, and thank you for your service.”
"Our deepest condolences go out to the Kubler family as the City of Hackensack has lost a hero," said Hackensack Mayor John Labrosse. "As a member of the Hackensack Fire Department for 22 years, Richie Kubler had a deep dedication and a desire to serve and protect. On September 11, 2001, Richie heard of the World Trade Center attacks and rushed to the scene, as he did so many times before, to save as many people as he could. Ultimately, this selfless act of courage that so many displayed on this tragic day cost Richie his life. We all must do what we can to honor his memory, his bravery, and his sacrifice."
‘A Huge Heart’
If there’s anything that could be learned on the key to a good life, it’s doing the right thing. And doing the right thing for a fireman meant being prepared. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.” In the true fashion of any good fireman, Kubler was always ready at a moment’s notice.
Growing up in Hasbrouck Heights in the 1970s, Kubler’s “huge heart” was evident when he and his brother assumed a tag team role, caring for their sick grandmother who had cancer. A natural-born adventurer, Kubler enjoyed hands-on activities as a youth, going camping and learning how to operate a boat from his father. During one family camping trip, Robert recalled a moth getting trapped inside the snug tent his family had retreated in one evening. While Robert recalled their mother’s fight-or-flight response being triggered, as any typical female’s would, Kubler walked casually up to it and squashed its wing in his fingertips before unzipping the tent to dispose of the insect.
After graduating Hasbrouck Heights High School in the 1980s, Kubler served a stint at Bergen Community College before realizing he didn’t belong in a classroom, but in the great outdoors helping people in distress. After serving on the Hasbrouck Heights Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Fire Department throughout the mid-1980s through the 1990s, he relocated to Hackensack with his first wife and their infant daughter Lauren and was sworn-in as a fireman in 1998 with Burgos in whom he found a lifelong friend. Throughout their careers, the two of them answered many calls together, one being the collapse of a parking garage of a residential building in the Hackensack circa 2010. In addition to becoming a professional firefighter with the Hackensack Fire Department, Kubler helped spearhead their family business Kubler Electric, founded on a reputation of ingenuity and reliability.
While working as a firefighter in neighboring Hasbrouck Heights, Kubler and his brother once spent two days getting the borough police department back up and running after a fire tore through the municipal building. Apart from running to people’s aid, Kubler would readily volunteer to cover the shifts of other firemen so they can be with their families. Even during a leisurely trip, he’d assume the role of the hero. While staycationing at Lake Hopatcong one summer, Robert said his brother went into combat mode when he took sight of a spiraling aircraft and instinctively prepared himself to dive into the lake to rescue the passengers. Luckily, they had already escaped the plane before it went down.
Kubler’s mentality was summed up in a cherished phrase coined by his wife Susan that he emblazoned on a regal he purchased in the months before his passing: “Fear Knot.” The phrase was first engraved on a pair of matching Enso rings that Susan had gifted her husband with on his birthday on April 15. The color green, symbolic of liver cancer awareness, is meant to placate anxiety and serve as a reminder to embrace the present. The rings matched a set of beaded Chakra healing bracelets he received from his daughter meant to carry a similar effect.
“Whenever I would have a moment and things weren’t going good, that brought me to the present,” said Susan of the bracelet. “Let this moment be what it is.”
This was a principle he’d instill in his daughter whom she said he encouraged to be “strong and independent” like him. Before becoming a nurse, Lauren had followed in her dad’s footsteps, having served as a cadet with the Hillsdale Fire Department in her teens. Growing up, father and daughter would spend quality time doing outdoorsy activities such as boating and skiing, a fun pastime she said she hopes to engage in with her own children one day.
About a month before Kubler’s passing, Susan knew how much Lauren would have wanted to have her father walk her down the aisle at her wedding next year. So she arranged for an engagement ceremony, which was officiated by a pastor at First Congregational Church, at a friend’s house in their hometown. To the sounds of “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles, Kubler walked his daughter down a makeshift aisle unto a terrace where a blessing was had along with a reading from the scripture.
“On her wedding day, she can think back and know her dad is with her,” noted Susan.
Throughout the past year, despite declining health, Kubler continued to live his best life. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he’d keep busy with home improvement projects with his Boston Terrier Ranger by his side. He’d invite members of the Hackensack Fire Department to his home in Maine to take them out boating and took Burgos joyriding to scope out some prime real estate so he too could make the move up there to a haven he likened to a year-round vacation (if you can make it through the harsh New England winters). Burgos said Kubler would rave about the tranquil beaches, the miles of coastline, and the magnificent view of the night sky -- the stars of which outshone the ones in New Jersey.
“We used to call Maine ‘Richie’s World,’” said Susan. “He took pride in his home. He’s leaving me with the home we envisioned five years from now. I look around and it’s all him.”
Up until the end of his life, Kubler concentrated on what was most important. Not thinking about defeat or what he didn’t have, but on living and the things that he did.
“He was a true hero,” said Robert.
Kubler’s ashes will be scattered in Vanceboro, Maine, where he vacationed as a child, and in Sanibel Island Florida, a boater’s paradise where he and Susan spent their honeymoon.
To carry the torch of his blazing legacy, the Kubler family is asking the community to donate blood and blood platelets to area hospitals and blood centers in need.
A wake and funeral will be held this weekend in Bath, Maine. A live streaming of the proceedings will be broadcast on the First Congressional Church in Wiscasset’s Facebook page with parts of the procession on the City of Hackensack Fire Department’s official website. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations sent to The Carpenter’s Boatshop, 440 Old County Road, Pemaquid, Maine, 04558 (offers transformative apprenticeships in the craft of boatbuilding) or the New Jersey Firemen’s Home, 565 Lathrop Avenue, Boonton, New Jersey, 07005 (a nursing home dedicated to the care of all firefighters.)