A few years ago, when he first ran the Boston Marathon, Michael R. Kennedy drew a heart on his calf. Above it, he inscribed the initials of his girlfriend, Sarah Wessmann.
A Boston firefighter, he competed in marathons at home and in Chicago, even though his muscular physique suggested that shorter distances were a better fit, particularly as he headed out from Hopkinton that morning.
“He ran 26 miles with shin splints, and I don’t know how he did it,” recalled his father, Paul Kennedy of Holbrook. “I said to Mike, ‘We’re not racehorses; we’re plow horses, that’s our build.’ He said: ‘Dad, you go through the pain. The pain is what it is, and you run through it.’ ”
Seemingly impervious to concerns about his safety or suffering, Firefighter Kennedy ran from the Back Bay firehouse down Boylston Street last year toward the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon. Last Wednesday, he ran into a burning Back Bay building and died at 33, fighting a final fire.
In years past, he was a Marine sergeant, a combat veteran of war in Iraq. He jumped out of planes while skydiving. He rode with the American Infidels veterans’ motorcycle club. He joined the Fire Department and was assigned to Ladder 2 in East Boston before settling in at the Back Bay firehouse and Ladder 15.
“Michael was an adrenaline junkie,” said his mother, Kathy Crosby-Bell of Cohasset.
He was more, of course. When Firefighter Kennedy was a boy, his mother took him on walks through the Arnold Arboretum. “He loved flowers,” she said. “As a matter of fact, when the flowers around his house were in full bloom, you’d think it was a girl’s house.”
Flowers and the arboretum held such special meaning for him, his mother said, that “just recently he spoke to me about the possibility of proposing on Lilac Sunday,” on May 11 this year.
Firefighter Kennedy, who lived in Hyde Park, spent his childhood in Roslindale, Milton, and West Roxbury. He covered even more territory during his high school odyssey, before receiving a diploma from Boston’s school system.
“Michael never met a high school he couldn’t be expelled from,” his mother said, chuckling. “I’m not kidding.”
She added that “he was very, very smart. He was always ahead of the class, but he was bored.”
“Getting a high school diploma from him was like pulling teeth, but once he did that, he chose Johnson & Wales culinary school and his marks just took off,” his father said.
Leaving the college in Rhode Island before finishing a bachelor’s degree, Firefighter Kennedy began visiting military recruiters. He was leaning toward the Navy, but kept peeking in the Marine Corps office as he walked down the hall “and they got him,” his father said.
“I have to say it’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” his mother said. “The Marines really made the difference: the discipline, the camaraderie.”
Trained in communications, he only recently “started opening up to me about being under fire” in Iraq, his father said.
After his tour of duty, the Marines wanted Firefighter Kennedy to stick around and “should have used him as a poster boy,” his mother said. “He’d say, ‘Mom, it’s just the uniform.’ I’d say, ‘No, it’s who’s filling it out.’ ”
The Marine experience, she said, probably shifted his aspirations to the Fire Department. “That brotherhood they all had — I think he realized, ‘This is what does it for me,’ ” she said. “He was always searching for that, and he saw it in the Fire Department.”
He was tempted to go elsewhere, though. Attracted by his military experience, several communications firms made offers for Mr. Kennedy’s services, his father said, but he chose the Boston Fire Department.
“It was the fulfillment of his desire to help other people, to give back, to be part of a fraternal organization that does good, and with honor,” his father added.
Other firefighters welcomed Firefighter Kennedy’s culinary expertise. “They looked forward to him going to a firehouse because he cooked really well,” his father said.
If Mr. Kennedy worked Christmas Eve, he and his mother had a tradition.
“I would bring over enough roast to feed the firehouse,” she said, “and he would make the meal.”
Firefighter Kennedy, who volunteered with or raised money for groups including Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation, was preparing to run in this year’s Boston Marathon with his girlfriend.
“They were training together,” his mother said. “I asked Sarah if she would take Michael’s number and run it for both of them, and give me his number afterward. My heart aches for this girl.”
In addition to his mother, father, and girlfriend, Mr. Kennedy leaves his grandmother, Christine (Biggar) Crosby of Plymouth; his stepfather, William Bell of Cohasset; his step-siblings, Matthew D’Elia of Roslindale, Douglas Bell of Leverett, Janice Fry of Northbridge, Amy Laliberte of Hingham, Jeff Bell of Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Christopher Bell of Weymouth; and three adoptive siblings, Melinda, Eliana, and Tomas Crosby-Bell, who live with his mother in Cohasset.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Thursday in Holy Name Church in West Roxbury. Burial with military honors will follow in the Fireman’s Lot in Forest Hills Cemetery.
After Firefighter Kennedy left the Marines, his mother said, one of his superiors wrote a letter saying that “Michael was not just a Marine. Under my command, he was the Marine.”
Mr. Kennedy “could rise to the occasion, which is what he did last week,” she said. “It’s what he did.”
His father said he initially tried “to dissuade him from going to the Fire Department. I know the dangers of the job. His response was, ‘Dad, I want to do something honorable.’ And that shut me up, and I said, ‘OK, I understand now, Mike.’ ”