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Montville — As a veteran firefighter, Brendan McGuirk said he is used to helping other people, not being helped by them.
That is why a fundraiser that was held for him on Saturday, McGuirk said, was so humbling.
"This reverse-role situation, I'm not used to it," he said. "Complete strangers are coming out to help me in my time of need."
Firefighters from across the region, veterans, children and many others had their heads, beards and mustaches shaved at Saturday's "Go Bald For A Brother," an annual benefit sponsored by Mohegan Tribal firefighters and the Eastern Connecticut Emerald Society to raise money to help with the expenses for firefighters with cancer.
McGuirk, the focus for this year's event, could not attend because he was recovering from the spinal surgery he had on Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the same hospital where doctors found the tumor in his spine in the fall.
A career firefighter in New London for nearly 40 years, McGuirk, 62, spoke on the phone to many of his friends who had gathered at the Mohegan Fire Co. in Uncasville to thank them, and he watched some of the hair hit the floor from his hospital room using the video chat feature on his iPhone.
This is his third bout with cancer. He was treated previously for liver cancer and thyroid cancer.
David Farrell, a firefighter at the Mohegan Tribal Fire Department, parted with several inches of hair. He said he didn't know McGuirk, but as a fellow firefighter and cancer survivor, he felt connected to the cause.
Several people crowded around to take pictures when Michael Passero, president of the New London City Council and a New London firefighter, sat down in one of the three chairs. He said it was the first time he had shaved his head, but with a New London firefighter as the beneficiary, "It was natural to volunteer."
Donny Ellis, a Montville firefighter, and Mike Tirone, a retired Norwich firefighter, each grew their facial hair for nearly a year. Ellis dyed his mustache yellow for the event because the other firefighters joked that he looked like the Dr. Seuss character the Lorax.
"It's all about the brotherhood," Ellis said. "We help each other out."
As his long beard disappeared, Tirone said he has grown his beard and shaved it at the fundraiser three times now.
"We should give whatever we can. Losing a little hair is no big deal," Tirone said.
The event began as a way to help Todd Williamson, a firefighter at Groton's Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department and a married father of two who was struggling to pay his medical bills. After, Williamson asked his friend, Mohegan Tribal firefighter Frank Geer, to keep the event going to help others.
Williamson died of cancer in July 2010. The event was held in 2011 to support the late Electric Boat Fire Capt. Scott DeWolf, who was battling liver cancer, and in 2012, for the late John Fratus, a longtime volunteer firefighter with the Oswegatchie Fire Co. in Waterford.
Geer asked for a moment of silence on Saturday to remember the three men. Then McGuirk's older brother, John, told the group how much Brendan loves being a firefighter and how thankful he was for their support.
Geer said he was hoping to raise between $6,000 and $7,000 at the event, which, along with head-shaving, featured raffles, food from the Rolling Tomato and acoustic rock music by FlipSide. New London Fire Lt. Joseph Hancock, McGuirk's longtime friend who collected donations from local businesses, said helping fellow firefighters is "just what we do."
"You help out. You step up," he said. "We don't even think twice about it."
New London Fire Chief Henry E. Kydd Jr. was one of the first to "go bald." Kydd, who worked on the same ambulance as McGuirk early in his career, said he was praying for his friend.
McGuirk, who lives in Waterford, said over the phone that he wants to return to work soon. The meals in the firehouse are far superior to hospital food, he joked. McGuirk said he missed the work and the horseplay. But most of all, he said, he missed the camaraderie.
McGuirk, who also served in the submarine force, started as a volunteer in the New London Fire Department in 1968. He became a career firefighter on his birthday in 1974.
Before McGuirk hung up, New London firefighter David Dow said to him, "Rest assured, you have a lot of support here today. We're thinking about you. Take care, brother."