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Brendan McGuirk, the veteran New London firefighter whose battle with cancer brought a groundswell of community support last year to help pay for medical treatments, died at age 63 Sunday morning in his Waterford home.
McGuirk was remembered by firefighting friends later Sunday as a large man with a booming voice whom everyone looked up to, a strong "senior guy" in the firehouse who would make everyone live up to the highest standards. But he also would crack people up with his strong political opinions and a penchant for humor that harked back to a time when political correctness wasn't a consideration.
"He would give you his honest opinion, whether you wanted it or not," said Michael Passero, a city councilor who also serves as a New London firefighter.
He was a guy younger firefighters looked up to, someone who didn't hesitate to take on the most mundane job.
"He was always right in the middle of the stuff that other guys might be less willing to do, such as scrubbing toilets," recalled Pete Lynch, a former city firefighter now working in Hamden. "No one ever did a good enough job."
"He was an unbelievable, one-of-a-kind guy," added Steve Wargo, a lieutenant in the New London department. "He loved being a fireman. He gave 100 percent every day he came to work."
Lynch recalled that McGuirk also worked as a longshoreman at the port of New London and previously had been a submariner with the U.S. Navy.
"It's hard to get more rugged than that," he said.
Cancer took a toll on McGuirk, but he maintained his fighting spirit to the end. Lynch said he saw McGuirk at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York after he became partially paralyzed, but his friend was still working hard at his physical therapy sessions hoping to get back to his pals at the firehouse.
"The dude thought he was going back to work," Lynch marveled.
"It's the greatest job in the world," McGuirk said in an interview last year when asked about his firefighting career. "A lot of people hate going to work in the morning. Not me. There's camaraderie like you'll never find in any other job."
Last year, firefighters held a series of benefits to help McGuirk pay for medical bills, including the "Go Bald for a Brother" annual cancer fundraiser sponsored by the Mohegan Tribal firefighters and the Eastern Connecticut Emerald Society.
McGuirk could not attend the event because he was recovering from surgery to remove a spinal tumor. He previously had fought off both liver cancer and thyroid cancer.
McGuirk's love affair with firefighting dates back to 1968, when he served as a young volunteer. He officially joined the New London department in 1974.
"He knew where every fire hydrant was in the city," Lynch said.
Firefighters said McGuirk was one of those guys who would be the first to rush into a burning building. Members of the force were so passionate about McGuirk that they took turns donating their vacation time so that he and his wife, Marianna, could continue counting on a paycheck every week.
"I don't think he lost one paycheck," Wargo said.
Some firefighters even went so far as to purchase a van for McGuirk after his vehicle became undrivable.
As much as people pitched in for McGuirk, friends say it would be hard to identify anyone more giving than McGuirk himself. A gruff guy on the exterior, he was always the first to help out comrades in their time of need.
At the center of his life were his grandchildren, and friends remember that McGuirk rarely missed one of their athletic contests.
"He leaves an immense hole. He was bigger than life," Wargo said. "It's hard to believe that he's gone."
Calling hours for McGuirk will be Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Impellitteri-Malia Funeral Home, 84 Montauk Ave., New London. His funeral will assemble at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and proceed to a Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. in St. Joseph Church. Interment with military honors will be in St. Mary Cemetery.