WEST ORANGE, NJ — Fire Chief Martin T. Kennedy was the second Fire Chief of West Orange, New Jersey. He served in that capacity from 1926 until April of 1942, when he became the first and only West Orange firefighter to die in the line of duty. At age sixty-one, Kennedy suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting a brush fire.
The present fire chief, Peter Smeraldo, was re-reading the book about his department's history when he was motivated to rectify the oversight that Kennedy had never been appropriately honored. That oversight was more than likely a result of the confusion brought about by the early days of America's involvement in World War II but Smeraldo felt a remembrance for Kennedy was long overdue and he arranged for a monument to be erected outside of fire headquarters. He then asked the author of the fire department history, John Dandola, to give a talk at the ceremony.
"I'd always been intrigued by Kennedy but I couldn't explain why because there was practically no personal information about him in the files," Dandola explains. "Back when the fire department history was written, there was very little posted on the internet that could have helped. Kennedy was a very typical-looking Irish civil servant who could have come out of Central Casting. During his thirty-eight years of service, he was in two of the department's most memorable photographs: one as assistant driver on one of the horse-drawn fire engines in 1915 and the other showing off the new chief's car with a huge portrait of Thomas Edison behind him. That second photo was taken during the World Premiere of M.G.M.'s Edison, the Man, which was held in West Orange during May of 1940 because Edison's home and laboratory are both situated here."
In preparing his talk about Kennedy, Dandola delved back into research and, now able to find some more in-depth information, was surprised to discover some intriguing connections with his own family. "Maybe that was the reason I felt this odd connection with him," Dandola admits. "We shared the same neighborhood."
Kennedy's life mirrored what it was like to be a citizen of West Orange at that time. He was the youngest of a slew of brothers and sisters all of whom were born in an older section of the town. His parents were Irish immigrants and his father worked in the local hatting industry. When married, Kennedy rented a house on the same street as one branch of Dandola's ancestors and he later moved to a street where Dandola's more immediate ancestors lived. "For at least the last fifteen years of his life, Kennedy lived five doors away from my grandparents—which would also be five doors away from the house I grew up in. My grandfather would have been his barber since that barber shop was on the corner of the street and on the way to walking to the firehouse where Kennedy was stationed. Family connections like that make the history of any place much more immediate and real."
Descendants of Kennedy are now being sought to glean more information about him for the dedication ceremony set for this coming spring. Contact can be made via e-mail through http://www.JohnDandola.com.
John Dandola has not only written the histories of both the Fire Department and Police Department of West Orange, he has written two histories about the town itself. Besides being a produced screenwriter and a produced playwright, he is also a published mystery author who has based nine 1940's-era novels in West Orange. His family has resided in what is now West Orange since well before there was a town bearing that name.