The group that sat down to plan the Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Memorial included six members of the fire service — and Norman Knight. The philanthropist and retired businessman didn’t share his colleagues’ background, but he brought his unique drive to honor the sacrifices of public safety workers.
As they discussed how the State House monument would look, Knight was adamant that it should be a special space, according to State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.
“A memorial itself could be just a statue,” said Coan, who worked with Knight on the planning. “But what he really drove home was that this memorial needed to be more than that.”
When the monument opened in 2007, it was surrounded by an open space designed for loved ones to sit and reflect. Without Knight’s direction and business acumen, Coan doubts the group would have built such a meaningful memorial.
Knight, 92, stepped down this week as Chairman of The Hundred Club of Mass., a role he had held since he co-founded the organization in 1959 to help families of fallen police and firefighters. As he departs, public safety agencies are looking back on his wide-ranging contributions.
“He is truly one of the people who you feel blessed if you meet in your life,” said Coan, who had known Knight for 25 years. “I learned from him just how to be a good person — how to be a leader.”
The Boston Police Department posted on its official blog this week that Knight’s name is famous in the public safety community. Five years ago, police named their media room in his honor.
“Mention the name Norman Knight to any police officer or firefighter in the city of Boston, or, for that matter Massachusetts, and the response will undoubtedly be one of deep admiration and gratitude,” the blog post said. “Put simply, cops and firefighters care about Norman Knight because Norman Knight cared about them.”
Though there are public benefits for the families of officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty, The Hundred Club sets out to build long-term relationships with their loved ones. As time goes on, Coan said, the families always know that somebody is looking out for them.
Among the beneifits the group provides are scholarships, counseling, tuition, and camps.
He often called the spouses of those who died to check in with them, Coan said.
“The compassion that he has and the caring for the family of the fallen public safety official, it brings tears to your eyes,” Coan said.
But Knight’s contributions go beyond even what the club offers.
Coan mentioned Knight’s contributions to the Norman Knight Hyperbaric Medicine Center at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in the 1990s.
Two injured firefighters at that time had to be flown to Connecticut for smoke inhalation treatment that required hyperbaric chambers, and in response Knight endowed the center. The facility was created in 1995.
Knight’s endowed institutions also include the Norman Knight Nursing Center for Clinical and Professional Development at Massachusetts General Hospital.
And, of course, there’s the firefighters’ memorial. Coan said the challenge there was to make a public monument that also allowed a place for private mourning and recognition. The quiet, open space achieves that, he said, just as Knight hoped.
“It’s become part of the landscape of the State House,” he said, “but it’s also for the families.”Andy Rosen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.