About a year ago, not long after he buried his brother Neal, Mike Mullane was standing at the elbow of the bar at Florian Hall, the firefighters’ union headquarters in Dorchester, staring into a cup of green tea.
“I love this job,” he said, almost to himself, “but, boy, it can do a number on you.”
His brother, like him a Boston firefighter, fought cancer as hard as he fought any three-bagger in any three-decker, and it was that kind of suffering that drove Mike Mullane, every day, to take care of the living and the dead.
He was a firefighter for 43 years and a union workhorse, first as president of Local 718 and for the last 32 as vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. In that latter capacity, he represented firefighters all over New England.
He was a Fields Corner guy with a world view. He wasn’t highly educated but was one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He understood politics better than any high-priced consultant. Politicians sought his support and counsel. I don’t know anybody who did more to get John Kerry the presidential nomination in 2004.
Mike Mullane understood class better than any sociologist. He believed that working people were the backbone of any stable community, that they deserved to be paid a living wage. He could wax philosophic about cities and the middle class, how in many cities the middle class was often cops and firefighters and teachers and that once you lose them, you lose the city.
He swore like a sailor. He smoked like a chimney. And he accumulated power not for himself, but for those he represented.
He was the pope of Florian Hall, and he was there every day, long into the night, at the last desk on the right, working the phones and receiving supplicants who needed help with benefits threatened or pensions withheld.
A while back, there was a woman, a firefighter in New Hampshire, who was getting the run-around from town officials. Mike Mullane made a call and, after about 300 F-bombs, everything was resolved.
“He was a Boston guy, but Mike’s attitude was, you’ve got to stick up for the small departments the same as the big ones,” said Rich Paris, president of Local 718 and one of Mullane’s proteges.
Mike Mullane’s desk had seven drawers. The only two he kept locked held his Winstons and his candy. Did I mention he was diabetic?
He was also a character.
At a conference in Florida, his buddy Steve MacDonald, a Boston firefighter, picked him up at the airport and Mullane immediately lit up a Winston.
“Hey!” MacDonald protested. “This is a rental car! I’m gonna get a $250 fine!”
Mullane waved him off dismissively.
After finishing his smoke, Mullane pulled a can of Febreze from his luggage and sprayed the car.
“Who carries Febreze around in their luggage?” MacDonald asked.
Mike Mullane did.
He stopped drinking years ago, content with the green tea Franny Mulkern served him at the far end of the bar at Florian. He enjoyed root beer with his pizza at Phillips Old Colony House. He left tips based on tabs as if he were still drinking because he didn’t want bartenders or waitresses to be penalized because he gave up a vice.
Mike Mullane died the other day, complications from gallbladder surgery doing what all those smoky fires, all those Winstons, all those long, hard days could not. He was 68.
There has never been a wake at Florian Hall, but there will be one Thursday, when Mullane is laid out, like a pope. His funeral is at St. Brendan’s, and he’ll be buried at Cedar Grove. All of his finals stops, just blocks from each other.
He will be buried in his uniform, his lapel adorned with an “Edzo 2016” pin, promoting the candidacy of his protege, Ed Kelly, who is running for secretary-treasurer of the international.
It’s classic Mike Mullane: loyal, even from the grave.Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.