Marty Walsh did the smart thing, not only in making Joe Finn commissioner of the Boston Fire Department, but in making Finn chief, too.
In doing so, Walsh is returning the department to a tradition, abandoned under the previous administration, in which the commissioner is a working firefighter, and the chief is a working firefighter, and they are one and the same, a hands-on leader who will not shirk his duties when the flames or anything else hits the fan.
Finn is cut from the same cloth as another former commissioner and chief, Leo Stapleton, who might just be the gold standard in my lifetime. Neither Stapleton nor Finn — nor former commissioners and chiefs Marty Pierce and Paul Christian, for that matter — would ever send their firefighters where they wouldn’t go, and firefighters literally ran through walls for them.
As for the inevitable carping from some that Finn is too close to the firefighters union, Local 718, and will not be tough when tough choices have to be made, I would say anybody who thinks that doesn’t know Joe Finn.
Finn has his own ideas about how to make the department more efficient, more responsive to changing needs. He has his own view on scheduling and other work issues. He and 718 will not always see eye to eye. They will sometimes argue. The difference is, they respect each other, appreciate they will sometimes disagree, but through it all know they both care about the job and the people who do it. That is a massive change in the way things were done under the previous administration.
“Firefighters respect Joe Finn,” says Rich Paris, president of Local 718. “And it goes both ways. Joe Finn respects firefighters, and he expects a lot out of them. We’re both concerned about the safety of firefighters, of citizens, of anybody who visits our city. He’ll bring the job into the future.”
I could sit here and tell you stories about Joe Finn’s firefighting and managerial ability, but it’s probably more illuminating to tell you about his character. It is one that was shaped growing up in Dorchester in a family of public servants, sharpened on Parris Island as a young Marine, honed at fires all across the city, in freezing cold and searing heat.
I saw it in its most poignant form after his sister, Marie Conley, a great lady and Boston public schools crossing guard, was run down outside the Mather School in Dorchester and fatally injured six years ago. Marie Conley died while saving the life of a 10-year-old boy who was about to walk into the path of a car driven by an 86-year-old man named Anis Cazeau, who shouldn’t have been driving.
Even before he buried his sister, Joe Finn went to see the man who killed her, not to berate him, but to comfort him.
“I had to bring this guy some peace,’’ Finn told me all those years ago. “I told him, ‘Look, you didn’t get up this morning and decide to go out and run my sister over.’ The poor guy cried the whole time.”
Finn and his family asked the district attorney not to seek incarceration for Cazeau, a Haitian immigrant who raised a girl, not his daughter, who became a Boston police dispatcher. Finn didn’t think Cazeau, who suffered a stroke a year earlier, should have been driving, but he had pity for the old man, not anger.
“What’s putting him in jail going to accomplish?” Finn said.
When the case got to court, Cazeau said little, but what he did say convinced Joe Finn that the mercy he and his family showed him was well placed.
“I wish it was me [who died],” the old man said, “not her.”
Finn gave his family’s impact statement, and he used it to ask lawmakers to force more drivers to be retested more regularly, to weed out more impaired drivers.
They ignored him, worried about the elderly vote.
Unfortunately, character is not contagious.