Former Norwich fire chief recalled as dedicated public servant

Norwich – Former Norwich Fire Chief Harold Lamphere, Jr., who died last week, was described as a man who got his point across with few words, a dedicated firefighter and leader, and one who inspired family members into public service careers.

Lamphere died on his birthday Aug. 19 at age 88. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, 181 Elizabeth St. Following the Mass, burial will be in the St. Joseph Cemetery on Boswell Avenue, where the procession will pass beneath a giant flag draped from a fire tower truck.

Grandson Daniel O’Brien, 41, of Preston, attributed his career as a Norwich police and fire dispatcher to his grandfather. O’Brien recalled being fascinated by the workings of the fire department whenever he visited the old Chestnut Street station in downtown Norwich. Fire dispatch at the time was run out of that station.

He recalled one special dispatch called out nearly every day: “N-1, 52 at Summit.”

“Everyone knew that meant he was on lunch,” O’Brien said, as Lamphere routinely went home to Summit Street for lunch.

The O’Briens lived in the same neighborhood, and Daniel and his brother, Matthew O’Brien, remained close to their grandparents growing up. Daniel became a career dispatcher and Matthew joined the Army, where he retired July 31 as a sergeant first class, stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington State.

“It's because of him, the tradition to serve the community and country, that I joined the military,” Matthew O’Brien said Monday.

Lamphere first was hired on Dec. 1, 1949, as an on-call firefighter summoned when needed, Daniel O’Brien said. He joined the department full time in 1950, was promoted to captain in 1966, to deputy chief in 1975 and chief on Aug. 12, 1977. Lamphere retired in May 1989.

Lamphere told a Day reporter upon his retirement that two tragic Norwich fires would remain with him for his lifetime: the 1962 explosion and fire at the Van Tassel Leather Co. warehouse which killed four Norwich firemen and a deadly arson fire at 43 Broadway, which killed four occupants in January 1989. That fire was just a month before Lamphere announced his retirement. He offered to remain on the job throughout that investigation.

Current Preston Fire Chief Tom Casey, a retired Norwich firefighter, was hired by Lamphere in 1979 and worked with the chief for 10 years. Chief Lamphere didn’t hesitate to tell the 19-year-old applicant that advisers had told the chief not to hire the youngster.

“He took a chance on me, and I’m forever in his debt,” Casey said. “He never told my why. He just said: ‘I think I’m going to take a chance on you. Don’t let me down.’ That was the end of the interview. He was a man of few words.”

Casey said Lamphere expected his staff to know their jobs and perform them when called. He allowed firefighters to have fun at work, but expected serious devotion when the alarm rang.

Norwich Battalion Chief James Kurasz is the last remaining active Norwich firefighter hired by Lamphere. Kurasz worked with the chief for 3½ years. Like Casey, Kurasz recalled a brief, succinct job interview.

“After I was hired, he called me into his office,” Kurasz said. “He said he hopes he never see me in his office again. That would mean I was in trouble.”

Kurasz said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of Lamphere’s passing.

“He offered me the honor of joining him and the ranks of the Norwich Fire Department,” Kurasz said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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