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Jimmy Boyle, ex-NYC firefighter union president, dies at 80

Jimmy Boyle in 2004.

Jimmy Boyle in 2004.  Credit: Jori Klein

He'd grown up to be a shy man, almost an introvert, his family said, and then Jimmy Boyle became an FDNY firefighter with Engine 217 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn — and suddenly he came into his own. 

That was Feb. 10, 1962. From then until almost the day he died, James (Jimmy) Boyle was the guy who was always helping someone and never himself. Whether it was fellow firefighters as two-time president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, or just as a member at the local Y, his family and friends said, Boyle was always finding a way to lend an ear, lend a voice, lend a hand.

"Jimmy's sisters told me the same thing, how he was almost an introvert through grade school and high school," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said Tuesday of Boyle, his longtime friend who came out of the same neighborhood in Sunnyside, Queens. "There was a total change somewhere in there. And certainly, later on, you couldn't help but know Jimmy was in the room . . . I never knew anyone who called me for more favors, asked for more help, sought more things, called in more chips — but never for himself. It was all about the satisfaction of helping someone else. That was Jimmy."

Boyle died Sunday in Rochester after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

The former UFA president and Brooklyn firefighters union trustee already had retired and was working for the Brooklyn district attorney's office when hijacked jetliners struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. That didn't stop him from running across the Brooklyn Bridge and down to the towers, arriving at the scene only to be caught up in the horrific collapse of the north tower.

Knocked to the ground amid all the dust and debris, Boyle didn't learn until later that one of his own children, FDNY firefighter Michael Boyle, had been killed in the tower's collapse. 

Michael Boyle, 37, had been in Tower One with fellow members of Manhattan's Engine 33 and was one of 343 firefighters lost on 9/11.

Despite the tragedy, Jimmy Boyle pressed forward. Daughter Mary Lynch of Rochester said that despite ongoing health battles, her father was still making calls until just last week, seeking favors to help firefighters and friends alike.

"He knew everybody," Lynch said. "Everywhere he went, whether it was a bum on the subway or a president. . . . To him, it was the same. He just thought everybody should get along, that people should help each other, that life was too short and you had to do what you could to make things better. Until Friday he was on the phone, getting it touch with people, trying to find ways to help them. . . . About two weeks ago, he said to me, 'I think I've done good.'" That, she said, was in response to the outpouring of notes he'd received from well-wishers and friends. "I told him, 'Yes, I think you've done good.' "

Boyle was born Dec. 31, 1938, in Sunnyside and attended St. Teresa's grammar school in Woodside a few years ahead of King. "He used to joke, telling me, 'At least one good guy came out of Sunnyside,'" King recalled Tuesday, noting Boyle was referring to himself.

Boyle met his future wife, Barbara, at an Irish dance in Long Island City. The two raised five children in Westbury, having moved there from Stony Brook.

"He was just so personable," daughter Jeanne Arnold, also of Rochester, said of her father. "Everywhere he went he would meet people. Basically, he could talk to you for a few minutes, take in something personal about you, and remember it. He might not remember your name, but he'd remember everything else about you. . . . He loved people, he loved connections with people, he loved connecting people with each other. It was the focus of everything he did."

Arnold recounted how her father and mother had moved to Rochester about 10 years ago to be closer to their children and grandchildren, and how, in that span, he'd come to know more people than she and her husband did.

"Down in New York City he had so many connections, and then he came up here and he was like that up here, too," she said. "He'd go to the Y to work out and he had friends at the Y, friends in his apartment building, friends here, friends there."

His daughters talked about how just last week their dad had gotten a handwritten note from former President George W. Bush. And how they'd also received a handwritten note of condolence from the folks who ran the dry cleaners where Boyle took his clothes.

"That's really a metaphor for Jimmy's life," King said Tuesday.

King talked about how Boyle backed Vice President Walter Mondale in his run for president in 1984, then traveled with Bush during his campaign in 2004, noting his ability to work both sides of the political aisle.

Not that Boyle didn't take a post-9/11 stand in the controversial 2010 debate over public funding for a mosque to be built near Ground Zero, telling Newsday it was "an affront to the families" who'd lost relatives on Sept. 11.

Having lost a son on 9/11 — his other son, NYPD Officer James Boyle, survived the attacks — Boyle worked hard afterward to get better equipment for firefighters, then worked hard as a homeland security adviser to King.

In addition to his wife, two daughters and son James, all of Rochester, Boyle is survived by son Peter of West Islip; sisters Marie DiGregorio of Westbury, and Elizabeth Farrell of Garden City; and seven grandchildren.

A wake will be held at the Dalton Funeral Home in Williston Park on Monday from 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., with a funeral Mass to be said at St. Brigid's in Westbury on Tuesday at 11 a.m. Interment will follow at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood, also in Westbury.

A separate memorial will be held in Rochester on Nov. 9.

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