Joe Erland's grip was so legendary that each year new recruits to the Port Jefferson Fire Department would challenge him to arm-wrestling matches.

None could ever defeat him, said Erland's son, Steve.

"He was very strong and had these big arms," Steve Erland said. "When he shook your hand, he pulled you in and squeezed. Even on his deathbed he was still squeezing your hand so hard it would hurt."

Erland, a former Port Jefferson trustee and a village fire commissioner, died Thursday of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare neurological disorder. He was 55.

Erland was born in Mather Hospital and graduated from Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. He then began a 32-year career with the Long Island Rail Road as a train engineer, and taught many of the current LIRR engineers and drivers, said his son.

Romance, too, came on the rails, where Erland met co-worker Patricia Corkery, whom he married in 1979. In addition to Steve, 29, of Port Jefferson, they had two daughters: Michelle, 28, of Brooklyn, and Andrea, 23, of Port Jefferson.

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Erland retired early from the LIRR when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 2008. "She had an eight-year battle," Steve Erland said. "That's why my dad retired when he did, so he could take care of her."

Caring for others was in Erland's blood. As a teen, he helped launch the Port Jefferson Fire Department's junior company and served as its first junior captain. At 17, Erland joined the department, and was promoted to captain. In 1992 he was elected commissioner and stayed in that position until his death, his son said. Last month, he was made an honorary chief.

Erland won a trustee seat in 2005 and served as deputy mayor. He lost a race for mayor against current Mayor Margot Garant, and served on the board for a year until he retired. "He was very proud that he never folded on what he believed in, and not everyone liked him for it," Steve Erland said.

"He's Port Jefferson's hero," Garant said. "It was an honor to be able to work with him and to learn of his deep commitment to the community."

Erland's wake is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. at Bryant Funeral Home in East Setauket. A funeral Mass is to be celebrated at 11 a.m. Monday in Infant Jesus Church in Port Jefferson, with burial to follow at Cedar Hill Cemetery.

He is also survived by sisters Jane Smith of Smithtown, Judy Mones of Patchogue, Margaret Martorano of Commack and Jeanne Erland of Central Islip. A younger brother, Billy Erland, died at age 17.