The Johnny Mac Foundation is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization formed by John’s wife, Jennifer after his death in August 2009 of 9/11 related cancer. John was an FDNY Firefighter and caring for others was what he did. In a list of final wishes, John asked to have a community center built in Blue Point, NY. In accord with John’s motto “whatever it takes,” the Foundation now works tirelessly to fulfill that wish. In addition, the Foundation supports other 9/11 first responder organizations. John’s last wishes were written down and electronically scanned.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, John was a remarkable man with a simple philosophy – work hard, play hard, love and be loved, but most of all, care about others. In 1999, John proudly joined the ranks of New York’s Bravest by becoming a New York City Firefighter. He took on this role with a solid sense of honor and duty, and his love for the job and his fellow brothers became the essence of who he was.
FDNY Firefighter John F. McNamara was 44 years old when he died leaving behind his wife Jennifer and son Jack. John worked for over 500 hours at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11, digging through the rubble to bring closure to so many families who lost loved ones. When Hurricane Katrina hit, John was one of the first to volunteer to go – fighting fires, rescuing stranded, wading through the aftermath and seeking any means to offer comfort and hope in the wake of devastation.
John was diagnosed with 9/11 related stage 4 colon cancer in 2006, when his wife was pregnant with Jack. Despite this devastating diagnosis, his selflessness, his inspiring brilliance, and his contagious humor all remained firm. He co-founded the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation and tirelessly advocated in Washington and New York for the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act. His endless sense of duty drove him to do all he could for all those around him, putting the needs and well being of others well before his own. It was this powerful gift of spirit that carried him and so many others through his final days. As has been the fate of so many 9/11 first responders, John lost his battle with cancer in August 2009.
Over the past weeks I am sure there have been a lot of Johnny Mac stories told – about the old days, the cruises, the cruising up 86th street, and all his firehouse pranks. I have my own Johnny Mac story. It is about a guy who grew up in Brooklyn with his brother Patrick, his sisters Carol and Donna, his father James and his mother Nancy. I never met Nancy, but it is to her whom I am most grateful for it is she who raised my husband to be the extraordinary man he was. John’s philosophy was simple – work hard, play hard, love and be loved, but most of all, care about others. I can tell you he did all those things. It is impossible for me to do John’s spirit justice in this eulogy but I will do my best to describe the man I have loved and built a life with.
John was simply remarkable. There are some people who just have that something that draws others to them and makes them at ease. John had that something in bucketfuls. Like his mother Nancy, everywhere we went he made friends and he changed everything he touched. Everywhere we lived, everywhere we went, he made friends. When we moved to Blue Point, he became the neighborhood protector. He was the one who hunted down the kids making mischief and told them as only he could – we can do this the easy way or the hard way. He was the one who got involved and ensured our block and our kids were safe. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say everyone on our block loved him.
He joined the Blue Point volunteer fire department and immediately became one of their own – responding to calls at all hours, pitching in at events and proudly marching in the Blue Point St. Patrick’s Parade. Within short order, John had made lifelong friends in the department. When John got sick the men and women of the Blue Point Fire Department were by our side. Bruce, Joe, Ralph, Jimmy, Mike, and so many others stood by John’s side and mine in his final days. I know how it comforted him.
No matter what else he had done in his life, being a New York City firefighter was the essence of who he was. He loved the job and he loved the guys. What could be better than getting paid for helping others. On 9/11, John went to the Trade Center. He spent hundreds of hours there digging for bodies and bringing closure to families. He lost so many friends that day, but no matter how hard it was, he was determined to bring his brothers home. He never asked for accolades – he just did what needed to be done. At least to me, he never talked about what he did. When we were in the hospital, a woman whom I had never met or heard about before came to visit. She told us she just had to come. She then told us that on 9/11 John pulled her out of a building that was about to collapse. After they were clear of the building, he gave her an angel medal I had given him to carry in his helmet. She showed me her wallet where she had kept it since 9/11. John may have not died on 9/11, but it was his work there that killed him.
When hurricane Katrina hit, John was one of the first to volunteer to go. He fought some fires, cleaned out some refrigerators, and made a lifelong friend in Captain Al. He was proud of what he did in New Orleans and outraged at how the government handled the response. That was John. He didn’t see color, he didn’t see economics or class – he just saw people being treated badly and was enraged.
Even when he was sick himself, he was always there for everyone else and asked for nothing in return. I know he had long conversations with other guys who were sick, like Bobby, Greg, and Sean. A friend told me that every time he went to Sloan for chemo he met another firefighter who was sick. Because of John’s persistence, a foundation was started to try to give help to those guys who were sick. Our friend Kenny told me that when he spoke to those guys, they told him they were going it alone until they met John who guided them and comforted them. Speaking to other sick guys was hard for him, but he also drew strength from them. He knew he was helping make it easier for someone else and that was enough for him.
I believe the day we found out I was pregnant was the happiest day of his life. He was so excited to be a father. He knew just what he would do too and how he would guide our child through the world surrounded by love. The wind was taken out of our sails when he got sick, but he never gave up. He fought each day for more time with his son. Jack was the reason that John woke up each day, the reason he fought so hard to stay with us for as long as he did. He loved Jack more than life itself. He went through every sickening treatment and every painful surgery with determination so he could have just a little more time with Jack.
He was an active and involved father who took care of Jack for the first two years of his life while I worked – taking him to the park and mommy and me classes and eventually to pre-school. He made friends with Mary, Kim and Christine and took Jack to play dates with their kids. They are now my friends and I am grateful for them. He came to every doctor appointment, changed more diapers than I did, fed him and played with him. He never came home from a shopping trip without something for Jack. He was so proud of Jack and took pleasure in each of his accomplishments. Jack returned that love, watching baseball with him, reading with him, and hugging him each night before bed, patting him on the back and telling him “feel better daddy.” He may not know it now, but Jack has some very large shoes to fill.
The guys from 234/123 and 220/122 have stood by us with utter devotion. They drove us to the hospital, came to visit John, and in his final days put together a schedule so he would never be alone in the hospital. Although he wanted no visitors, so many of them called just to see if I was ok or if the family needed anything. One of the guys came to the hospital near the end. John was barely conscious. He stood next to his bed, held his hand and with tears in his eyes, told him he loved him. Then he told me that they would always take care of me and Jack. That is the brotherhood that John held so dear and I am grateful for it.
My time with John was not long enough. Even if he had been 95 when he dies it would not have been long enough. From our first date, I knew I would marry him. He met me at my apartment in Brooklyn Heights. We walked down the promenade to Fulton Landing where we sat and drank beer under the Brooklyn Bridge. We walked back to my apartment hand in hand. A friend saw us and later told me it looked like we’d been together forever. It felt like that too. John was so easy to be with. I knew he felt the same way I did when he chose taking me to the Irish Fair over watching Sunday football. John quickly became part of my life. He helped me take care of my aging grandmothers. He took my Grandma Hennie to the bank, the hairdresser, out for lunch and to the supermarket. Grandma in turn, like a true Jewish grandma always had his favorite food for him when we visited. She loved him dearly, not just because of how much he loved me, but because of the man he was. One year, he helped me prepare a Thanksgiving feast for my Grandma Ernie. She was wheelchair bound at the time and we loaded up the car with turkey and all the trimmings. She died that January, and I know she loved John like a grandson. Nobody in my family was convinced I should marry John when he proposed only six months after we met. However, I think I am safe in saying that he charmed them as much as he charmed me and they fell in love with him as much as I did. I know my parents came to think of him as a son and that their sadness at his passing is great. He loved them too.
In his final days in the hospital, John would tell me he was sad and would cry. I told him I was sad too, but that there were no regrets. He was my life and my love. I told him that in our nine years together we had more than other people have for fifty years. I told him that even knowing the future, I would marry him all over again. It sounds trite, but he made me a better person. He taught me what it means to be completely selfless. He gave me strength when I thought I didn’t have any more. I am so proud and so grateful to have been his wife.
They say angels walk the earth. I know this is true because John was one of them.