Former FDNY Capt. James Donoghue dies at 98

James P. Donoghue, former FDNY captain, died at

James P. Donoghue, former FDNY captain, died at 98. (Credit: Handout)

Decades retired from the FDNY, Capt. James Donoghue would sit in his Garden City home and berate the newscast.

"He would say, 'That captain doesn't know what he's doing! They shouldn't be on that floor! That wasn't the right procedure! He shouldn't have let the men go in without backup!' " his daughter Kathleen Stanco recalled. "You may retire, but a fireman is always a fireman, through and through."

Donoghue, who served 35 years with the FDNY before retiring in 1972, died Sept. 28 at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola. At 20 days shy of 99, he was one of the FDNY's oldest living retirees, according to department spokesman Jim Long.

Donoghue had survived Parkinson's, emphysema and colon and skin cancer, but pneumonia killed him, an ailment that also took his wife's life four years earlier.

His fire-safety legacy lives on: Stanco won't see a Broadway show without memorizing a theater's exit locations, cook without a fire extinguisher nearby or stay at a hotel without choreographing how many lefts and rights there are to evacuation stairs.

"He trained us," she said.

He so hated fires that he even forbade the family to use the fireplace. But one Christmastime in the 1960s while he was at work, the rest of the family gathered wood and lit the fireplace without opening the flue. Decorations soon caught fire.

"My mother wouldn't call the fire department because, she said, 'Your father's going to kill us!' " recalled Stanco, now 65. "We took pots of water from the kitchen and then we poured it on the fire."

But "he knew by all the scorch marks on the mantle. We couldn't hide it," she said.

James Patrick Donoghue was born Oct. 18, 1913, to Irish immigrants Peter Donoghue, an elevator operator and later a mailman, and the former Nelly McGearty, a housewife, in the same two-story clapboard house in Corona, Queens, where James would live from childhood until early in marriage.

He graduated in 1931 from Elmhurst's Newtown High School and found work fixing refrigerators and at the utility company now called Con Edison. He considered the priesthood, but joined the FDNY in 1937, assigned to Manhattan's Engine 54. In 1941, Donoghue married Margaret Burnett. They'd met when Margaret answered the door when he came to the Lower East Side for a date -- with her sister.

"She wasn't home when he rang the doorbell, so he said, 'Well, if you're free, I'm free,' " Stanco said.

Frugality would rule their family: Rubber bands saved on doorknobs; milk thinned with water to stretch further; leftover bar soap globbed together for dishwashing liquid; wrinkles ironed from gift-wrap for the next holiday.

"It was real Depression savvy," she said. "There was no waste."

Leaving behind his toddler daughter, Barbara, Donoghue enlisted in 1944, serving aboard the Navy's USS Lafayette as a quartermaster third-class dodging German torpedoes.

"When he came back from the war my sister didn't know who he was and wouldn't go near him," Stanco said.

The couple moved to South Ozone Park, Queens, before Franklin Square and then to Harvard Street in Garden City, where Donoghue spent the last 55 years of his life.

He rose through the ranks -- lieutenant in 1951; captain in 1961, the latter part of his career assigned to Queens. Margaret "lived in this fear" he wouldn't come home alive, Stanco said. Margaret's dad had died young; she didn't want her kids fatherless. At news of a fire, Stanco said, "We'd always have to put the TV on and she'd say, 'Look for dad!' "

Donoghue loved the FDNY: saving lives, helping people -- and the job security.

"He used to tell us, 'Get a civil service job. You'll always get paid,' " his daughter said.

His son Dennis also joined the FDNY; Stanco became a schoolteacher; and his niece, Lorraine Hannon, a Nassau County cop -- and now a chief of the force. Hannon's father, James' brother Emmett, died relatively young; James "was there for every milestone," she said.

In retirement James Donoghue golfed, devoured history books and read the papers, particularly articles on fires and his niece's police force.

In addition to Stanco, of Williamsburg, Va., Donoghue is survived by a sister, Helen Wall, of Palo Alto, Calif.; two sons, Dennis and James Jr., both of Sag Harbor; and four grandchildren. His older daughter, Barbara Sword, died in 1996.

On Donoghue's bucket list: Turn 100. Be the Garden City Retired Men's Club's eldest man. But one retired man stood in the way of the latter goal: Edward Palkot, 99, two months Donoghue's senior. So Donoghue, the second eldest member, would regularly scan the obits.

"He'd say, 'Darn it, he hasn't died yet!' " Stanco laughed.

Reached by phone, Palkot revealed with a bittersweet chuckle where he'd been during Donoghue's funeral at the Church of St. Anne: the pews.

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