New Fire Commissioner Joe Finn comes home

When Lenny Johnson walked into the Neponset firehouse in Dorchester 60 years ago, the first guy to greet him was Paul Finn.

“He came right over and shook my hand,” Johnson was saying. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of guy I want with me in a fire.’ Paul and I were partners from that day on.”

Paul Finn and Lenny Johnson were part of the original Engine 20 crew. One day, 53 years ago, Paul’s wife, Rita, went into labor and called the firehouse. Lenny Johnson got on the phone with her.


“I need Paul,” Rita Finn said.

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Lenny held the phone to his chest and told Paul to high-tail it home. Paul Finn ran up Neponset and banged a left onto Ashmont. He was home in a minute.

Lenny was still on the phone with Rita when she asked, “Where is he?”

“I’m right here,” Paul Finn replied, standing next to his wife.

They made it to St. Margaret’s just in time for the birth of Joseph.


On Monday, 85-year-old Lenny Johnson was sitting on a folding chair in one of the bays at the Neponset firehouse, looking at the guy who was born 53 years ago after Paul Finn ran home faster than Jesse Owens.

“I held Joe in my arms, right here, just after he was born,” Lenny Johnson said. “And now look at him.”

Joe Finn, the new commissioner and chief of the Boston Fire Department, was sworn in at the firehouse where his dad worked with men who fought the Nazis overseas and fires back home. He remembered them by name: Lenny Johnson, Bill Wright, Walter Hurley, Frank McKay, Johnny Howard.

For Joe Finn, this was as much about coming home as it was being sworn in.

“A lot of fond memories here,” he said.


But it is a job where some memories hurt, like a punch in the chest.

If there was any doubt Marty Walsh would make Joe Finn his chief and commissioner, it ended that day in March when the wind turned a bad fire on Beacon Street into a horrible fire. It was Joe Finn who made the call no chief wants to make, to pull everybody out of a building where two firefighters were trapped.

Joe Finn saved lives that day, but on the proudest day of his professional life he went out of his way to remember the worst day of his professional life, the day that Lieutenant Eddie Walsh and Firefighter Mike Kennedy made the ultimate sacrifice. Joe Finn hired Eddie Walsh and loved him. Finn was, like Mike Kennedy, a Marine and there is a bond between Marines that is ineffable.

As Joe Finn recalled the two fallen firefighters, Kennedy’s mother, Kathy Crosby-Bell, and Kennedy’s girlfriend, Sarah Wessmann, were sitting nearby and nodded in appreciation. Joe Finn saluted everybody, from firefighter to chief, who worked that fire.

“To all of you,” he said, making a toast without a drink.

Joe Finn’s wife, Sue, was sitting in the front row, smiling. She spent sleepless nights worrying about her husband. She does the same for their son Brandon, who works on Ladder 15 on Boylston Street, the same ladder Mike Kennedy worked on, the same ladder Eddie Walsh worked on before he made lieutenant. And she lies awake sometimes because her son Sean, a lance corporal with the Marines, is in Afghanistan.

By being sworn in at the firehouse where his dad worked, around the corner from where he grew up, Joe Finn proved you can go home. But Sue Finn is a mom, and she won’t relax until her Sean comes home.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at