Rodni Leftwich, raised around the corner from the Glen Cove Volunteer Fire Department, was intrigued as a child by the engines' sirens and blaring air horns.
That curiosity fueled a passion that propelled him through the ranks to lead that department. Leftwich, 40, is the first black fire chief in the department's 175-year history.
"To realize how far we've come today from what these gentlemen had to do to even be eligible for the fire department makes me humbled to be in this position," he said.
Forty years ago, Leftwich's mentor Jeffrey Jackson asserted his right to volunteer, breaking barriers as one of the first black firefighters in Glen Cove's then all-white force.
"He must have felt like a fish in a fishbowl," Leftwich said.
Jackson, 70 and still an active Glen Cove firefighter, said he was afraid but wouldn't act so in front of his new co-workers.
"I thought, 'I've got a job to do, and I'm here to do it. I'm not here for foolishness,' " he said.
Leftwich, a married father of two, works as a departmental fire dispatcher outside of his volunteer duties.
He earned the title of chief in January and marked his 20th anniversary with the department the following month. He credited his success to Jackson as well as close friend and 1st assistant chief, Joseph Solomito, 50, who has served as fire chief.
"With these two -- let me tell you -- if you got out of line, they'd let you know it," Leftwich said. "They were my guardians."
The three have a repartee that includes finishing each other's sentences and busting the chops of whichever one of them says "I" rather than "we."
"I told Rodni I'd go to the end of the earth for him and his family," said Solomito, who is godfather to one of Leftwich's sons.
Though he acknowledged the gravity of being the first black chief, Leftwich said his ascension has been as much about camaraderie, mentorship and community.
"I may be a big guy, but it's bigger than me," he said. "It's about the whole thing."
Leftwich was quick to point to fellow firefighter Lisa Dwyer as another "first": She became Glen Cove's first female fire captain in 2008 and was named again this year.
He also lauded all firefighters for their bravery. "You have people to this day who don't know how we're running into burning buildings when they're running out."
Leftwich was honored at a February City Council meeting. Mayor Ralph Suozzi has said Leftwich's merits -- not his race -- earned him the chief title.
The Rev. Roger C. Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Glen Cove and chairman of the local NAACP chapter, said he is proud of Leftwich.
"It is a testament to Rodni Leftwich's qualifications that he is where he is. It's a testament to the city, even though it's 2012," Williams said.
Williams said Jackson and others in the wave of first black firefighters "kept making appeals to get in these doors and finally they did, and Rodni Leftwich is the beneficiary."