James F. Kearns III, who achieved a longtime goal when he was promoted to battalion chief in the New York Fire Department and later saw many of the firefighters he'd mentored killed in the World Trade Center attacks, died Saturday at his home in Ridge. He was 66.
The cause was a respiratory illness, said his wife, Nancy.
" 'I have to tell you, I love what I do,' " she said he told her after they met on a blind date in 1970. "'I'm going to be a battalion chief one day. That's my goal. Understand?'"
She did. "I'm in for the long haul," she said, recounting the moment in a 2002 Newsday story.
Before his promotional exams, she kept their four children in the house while he retreated to the family camper, parked in the backyard, to study. As he climbed the department's ranks, his two-days-on, three-days-off work schedule set the rhythm of family life.
The children grew up going to fire department picnics in the summer; and at Christmas parties, they watched in nervousness, then relief, as their dad's ladder truck "rescued" Santa Claus from a New York City rooftop, where he'd gotten stuck with a bag of presents but no reindeer.
A son, Michael, of Statesboro, Ga., said his father often spent days off fishing at Lake Panamoka for largemouth bass or pickerel. He didn't talk much about the job with his family.
He saw his share of human suffering in a 28-year career that took him from Ladder 17 in the South Bronx to Ladder 7 in Manhattan and Ladder 129 in Queens, Nancy said. "He didn't want to bring that home," she said.
A late-career illness forced Kearns to light duty. Michael said his father put himself on a diet and began cycling 12 miles a day, trying to get reinstated to active duty. "That was his ultimate goal," he said. "It never happened."
Kearns was nevertheless promoted to battalion chief before retiring. On their way home after the promotion ceremony, he and his wife stopped at his parents' graves. He pulled out his new gold shield and said, "See, Mom, Dad -- I made it."
Kearns was retired and visiting an old department buddy in Georgia with his wife when the planes hit on 9/11. The next few weeks were a kind of living hell for him, his family recalled, first as the names of missing and dead colleagues filtered in, then as the funerals began.
"It was devastating for him," Michael said. "Back and forth for Masses, wakes, funerals. I think it's what caused him to have his first stroke."
Kearns was born in Mount Vernon and graduated from Suffolk County Community College in 1982 with associate's degrees in fire science. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, stationed in Okinawa, and was discharged in 1968.
Kearns also is survived by sons James and Patrick, both of Ridge; a daughter, Meaghan Kearns of Ridge; a sister, Noreen Stack of Mount Vernon; and three grandchildren. He was buried Wednesday at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton.