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On, off job, victims were imposing presences

Boston Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy was a square-jawed, 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran who saw combat in Iraq and a first responder who rushed to treat victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. He spent days off roaring down the road on his motorcycle and pushing himself and others to the limits as a Crossfit trainer.

“He was a fun-loving guy,’’ said Don Matchem, a Brockton firefighter who had often run into Kennedy over the past three years. “And he always had a smile on his face. He was always willing to help you with your bike. He was just enjoying life.”

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Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. had tried a career in finance, but his passion was for firefighting. Nine and a half years ago, Walsh became a Boston firefighter, following in the footsteps of his late father, a lieutenant in the Watertown Fire Department.

Walsh, 43, was a married father of three children, two boys and a girl who were all under age 10. The family lives in West Roxbury, where Walsh played basketball on Sunday with his second-grade son and other children and parents at Holy Name Parish School.

On Wednesday, the two firefighters from the Boylston Street firehouse died in a fast moving blaze in a Beacon Street apartment building.

Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr.

Boston Fire Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr.

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At Sunday’s basketball game at Holy Name Parish, Walsh may have been the only person on the court who looked like a basketball player: towering height, an athletic build, and short cropped hair, said one of the parents, John M. Tobin, a former city councilor.

“He’s a big, tall, handsome guy. Just gigantic,” Tobin said.”If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he plays for the Celtics.”

‘He’s a big, tall, handsome guy. Just gigantic. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he plays for the Celtics.’

John M. Tobin, friend of Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. 
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Walsh and the other parents made it easy for their youngsters to steal the ball or dribble past them to the hoop. “It was a good day,” Tobin said.

He met Walsh last year in Tobin’s backyard at his son’s seventh birthday party in West Roxbury. Walsh lived two streets over on Keith Street.

“He was hard to miss in a crowd, just an imposing guy,” Tobin said. “But he has an easy smile and a quick laugh.”

In the hours after Walsh’s death, Boston police parked outside his family’s home in West Roxbury. An officer said the family was devastated and wished for privacy.

Walsh had deep family ties to firefighting, and to Watertown. “He was a great kid, a great firefighter, and a great family man,” Watertown Fire Chief Mario Orangio said.

“Ed Walsh was a gentleman,” said state Representative John J. Lawn Jr., who grew up with Walsh. “He just always had a smile and had his hand out.”

The Walsh family is still well known around Watertown, where Walsh’s late uncle Bill was a lieutenant with the Fire Department and his cousin Tom is a captain.

Watertown police escorted Walsh’s mother to Boston to meet family members at the hospital where Walsh’s body was taken, said Mark Sideris, the Town Council president.

On Wednesday night, Walsh was being remembered at Greg’s Restaurant, Sideris said.

“It’s a very sad evening here, and we’re already thinking about ways to help the three children that he’s left behind,” Sideris said. “Everybody’s very concerned right now.”

Marilyn M. Petitto Devaney, a governor’s councilor from Watertown, said she saw the fire while driving home from the State House. She said she prayed for the firefighters, not knowing she knew one of the victims.

Devaney’s late husband Jack served with Walsh’s father on the Fire Department.

“He would have been so proud to see his son on the Fire Department,” she said. “I’m in shock. I just can’t believe it. There are no words. I can’t even imagine. He was just the nicest young man.”

Michael R. Kennedy

Boston Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy.

In his native Roslindale and in West Roxbury, Michael Kennedy was known first as Dork, a prankster and a freewheeling spirit, but also a volunteer who worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters. He led a Boston Fire Department contingent last month in traveling to Rhode Island to donate blood, join the bone marrow registry, and show support for a 6-year-old boy with leukemia, friends said.

“He was a tough guy, but he also had, like, the best sense of humor,” said Erik Bingel, a friend since middle school. “The party didn’t start until he showed up.”

A magnet for nicknames, Kennedy started as Kennedork, which morphed into Dork. As an adult, he would become Coach K to his Crossfit disciples and Wildman to his friends in the American Infidels, a motorcycle club populated by veterans.

“Everybody knew him, and if you didn’t know him, you knew who he was,” said Bingel, a former Boston police dispatcher who now lives in Las Vegas, recalling parties from their teens and 20s. “It was like when Norm walks into the bar in ‘Cheers.’ When he walked in, it was, Dork!”

He was a master at Texas Hold ’Em, and the kind of guy who would complete a hardcore obstacle course like Tough Mudder wearing a fake tuxedo T-shirt or post a picture to Facebook heeding the call of nature while in fatigues.

On the job, he was all action and discipline, friends said.

“He was one of the first men in,” said Melissa Nikolaides, a friend since their days bagging groceries at the West Roxbury Roche Brothers and attending Newton’s Trinity Catholic. Kennedy, who was single, lived in Hyde Park.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The body of one of the victims of Wednesday’s fire was escorted by fellow firefighters to the medical examiner’s office.

“I can guarantee you he didn’t think twice about running in there,” said Ashley Duckett, another old friend who met Kennedy through Nikolaides when they were teenagers.

Both noted his movie star looks. “Handsome, very handsome — I can’t stress that enough,” said Duckett. “He could be talking to you about anything from the dirt on the ground to the sun in the sky, and you’d catch eyes with him and you’re drawn in, you’re locked, you’re stuck.”

Kennedy dabbled in college before he enlisted in the Marines, which appealed to the sense of loyalty and duty that was always present beneath his goofball exterior, friends said. “He got a hero’s welcome when he came home, and he jumped right onto the Fire Department,” Bingel said. “He always wanted to be there to help to do the right thing. He just had such a kind heart.”

Kennedy joined the Fire Department 6½ years ago.

Derek Cloutier, a fellow veteran who met Kennedy riding with the American Infidels, said he was not the sort — few of them were — to talk much about his time in combat or his experience responding to the bombings in Boston last spring. This spring, friends said, he was training to run the Boston Marathon himself.

“He was down there [last year] tying tourniquets and doing everything else to help out, and he was dealing with that and overcoming that stuff,” said Cloutier, 32, a former Marine who lives in Leominster. “He was definitely one of the bravest guys I know.”

Cloutier said Wednesday night that he was struggling to process his friend’s death. “I’ve been kind of like off and on sobbing over the last couple hours,” he said, “and all I can think of is him sitting there saying: ‘Knock it off. Get out and live!’ ”

Meghan E. Irons, Jeremy C. Fox, Andrew Ryan, Maria Cramer, and Jacqueline Tempera contributed. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@lauracrimaldi. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.

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