When Ronald Sakowich joined the New Hyde Park Fire Department at the age of 18, the department was made up of only men, some firefighters' coats were made of rubber, and the members were still riding on the back step of the fire truck.
But during his more than 50 years of service, things have changed.
“Now you must be seated and belted for safety concerns, which is a good thing,” Sakowich, who has been with the department since 1970, said. Now, the coats are made up of fire-resistant fabrics, and among those in the junior firefighter program, about 35% are women.
Sakowich, 70, a third-generation firefighter, is among a group of 38 New Hyde Park firefighters who will be recognized for 50 or more years of service with the unveiling of a monument July 7 at a village park. Village officials said 21 of those members are alive and 17 will be honored posthumously.
“The fire department has been in my blood for years, between my father and grandfather; it was instilled in me," Sakowich said. "I grew up doing this stuff.”
A 7 1/2-foot bronze statue in the shape of a firefighter will be unveiled at the event. There will be three brick panels behind the statue with the names of the 38 firefighters. Officials said that when other firefighters hit 50 years of service, their names will be added to the panels.
Sakowich, who is the vice chairman of New Hyde Park fire district, will be memorialized alongside his brother Roger, who has 50 years of service.
“The friendships that I made from other parts of town or other parts of the nation, who moved into the village, they all bring stories,” Sakowich said. “Some of the things were tragic, and yes, they were not fun … but you did your job and tried to help the community.”
The statue was provided by the fire department — with donations from the village's five companies, the benevolent association and elsewhere, officials said.
Years before he became mayor, Christopher Devane said, he had a conversation with a longtime firefighter Robert Carlin, who expressed his desire for a memorial, where living firefighters and their families can visit to see and appreciate their years of service.
“I never forgot that conversation, and when I was able to do something about it, when I got in as mayor last year, I sought to make that a reality,” Devane said.
The village has a pocket park near the intersection of Jericho Turnpike and Central Boulevard — which is also known as Memorial Way — where the statue will be unveiled July 7 at 6 p.m.
“It is going to be a living memorial … for the dedication, courage, bravery and spirit not only of the entire New Hyde Park Fire Department, but those members who have given 50 years, who are really the history of the department,” Devane said.
Carlin, 79, who had about 56 years with the department, will view the event virtually from his home in Kentucky.
"I thought it was just gone in the wind," Carlin said of his conversation with the mayor. "It wasn't for me. I was just thinking of all the people before me, who put 50 years in the community."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Ronald Sakowich's name
About the New Hyde Park Fire Department
The board of the fire commissioners organized the New Hyde Park Fire Department in 1910 with the three companies — Active Hook and Ladder No. 1, Enterprise Hose Company No. 1, and Protection Hose Company No. 2. The department currently has five companies with 196 active members and about 40 junior firefighters.