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Horrific blaze begins mission for fire prevention

Dunkirk Fire Department held a number of presentations about fire safety and prevention with the city elementary schools.

One of the pleasures of life when one grows old is mind wandering. The older you get, the farther back you travel. And given the world we live in today, the trips down memory lane become more and more enjoyable-a pleasant escape from reality. In my case, these mental voyages often take me to that place where I enjoyed the best five years of my life-on the shores of ole Lake Erie — home of the Blue Devils — the State University of New York at Fredonia.

As is my wont, I selectively drum-up only those recollections which bring the most joy. Weekends at the Colonial Inn, sucking down Michelob 25-cent drafts, playing the bowling machine with Lepar, Mac and Loucksie for quarters, chasing and getting shot down by the darlins, heading over to Chimera’s for the best pizza ever. Or driving to the Point on Lake Erie near Dunkirk, tapping a keg, exchanging tall tales before a raging fire, then venturing over to Mark’s for the best subs ever.

Partying, contrary to my mother’s protestations, was a necessary respite from the rigors of academic life. But even they (the rigors) had their own rewards — like taking courses from the best dang social science teachers anywhere; the Doctors Roselle, Chazanof, Hagan, Akolekar and J. Murdoch Dawley. And then there are the memories of good deeds done. Omega Chi Beta. The campus service organization which kept Marty Fox, Charlie Ohlinger, Rog Quinn and myself honest. One of our most memorable and worthwhile activities involved fire safety. On a beautiful sun-kissed October morn, we divided into pairs and canvassed the community passing out fire prevention information and asking people to check their smoke detectors. This memory becomes even more poignant in light of the following.

On Dec. 22, 1991, in my hometown of Little Falls in the historic (Battle of Oriskany) Mohawk Valley, the six McCleod children, aged 10 to 2, perished in a house fire. The tragedy was especially heartfelt as it was personal. Raised by their single mother, the kids often went without.

The oldest boy, Douglas, worked odd jobs to help out and on one occasion eschewed personal desires in lieu of purchasing three pizzas for the lifeguards at the muni pool. Why? Because they had been nice to him. He may have been lacking in material possessions, but certainly not in values. My youngest daughter, Jennifer, was one of those lifeguards.

The Berklee School of Music grad-to-be somehow found the courage to sing at their funeral. I was never more proud of her. As for me, my Christmas Adopt-A-Child Program at Herkimer County Community College (taught there 30 years) which provided clothing and a toy, book or game of choice to area children in need included that year the McCleod kids. In the bitterest of ironies, the gifts we had gotten them remained untouched in the cellar.

In the fire’s wake, my Students for a Better World organization jumped into action. Remembering the aforementioned Omega Chi Beta experience, I divided my students into pairs and that spring (1992) they canvassed the city, distributing fire prevention information, asking residents to check their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and purchasing the latter for those without. We did the same over the next two years for the other Valley towns. Later, we sold Christmas ornaments with the children’s faces etched into its six panels to purchase Sparky the Fire Robot Dog, one of the most effective, entertaining means of teaching children about fire prevention.

Then unbelievably, just before Christmas in 1988, it happened again. Kris Cagwin, whose mother Valdean graduated with me, and his younger brother and sister, perished in a housefire. Kris was one of my favorite students. He had the looks, blond hair and blue eyes of Alexander the Great, was bright, witty, kind and empathetic beyond his age. One morning I walked into my Western Civ classroom and saw written on the blackboard in big, block letters-“God thinks he’s R.J.” You got it. Another Cagwinism. His humanity was never more evident than on that beautiful day in May when, during my class’s 9 mile walk protesting cuts in the VA’s budget, he noticed that Vietnam combat vet Dave Davis’ little boy Dewey was laboring while walking up a hilly part of Rte.5. Bending down, he picked him up and put him on his shoulders, carrying him some seven miles to our destination. In Kris’ memory, SBW (mentioned earlier) was renamed the Kris Cagwin Volunteers.

Over the past 20 years, our Herkimer County Hunger Coalition (hchungercoalition.org) has continued to advocate for fire safety on behalf of the McCleods and Cagwins. But this year, the 30th anniversary of the formers’ deaths, we decided to step it up. We revived our Half and Half Contest among third graders throughout the county. The creation of my then nine year-old nephew, Logan Crouse, a half and half is half one thing and half another-e.g. the birtle-half bird, half turtle; the ostridile-half ostrich, half croc. To enter the contest each student must include an exit plan for his/her house. The contest booklet also includes invaluable fire safety information for parents and teachers. In addition, every student from pre-K through grades 5/6 receives a fire prevention flyer to take home and each contest entrant receives a certificate of participation. Sparky has been dusted off and is ready to roll. Older students, as much as the pandemic will allow, will have the opportunity to renew the Omega Chi Beta canvassing. To date, eight schools have joined the project.

I’d like to offer the third graders in the Fredonia and Dunkirk elementary schools an opportunity to participate in the Half and Half Contest (principals can contact me at 315-866-7765). And I’d like to encourage the older students to get involved in some way. With October being Fire Prevention Month, it’s time to do everything we can to prevent another McCleod, Cagwin or DeCarlis (three young brothers who died in a housefire in 2018 in nearby Herkimer) tragedies from ever happening again. We can begin by checking our smoke detectors and practicing our exit plans the 22nd of every month, and by placing on the fridge a note with these two words in bold print-Never Again!

Oh-oh. The mind’s started wandering again. It’s the spring of 1962 and the Blue Devils baseball team led by Coach “Hillbilly” Ludwig has just defeated arch-rival Buffalo State. Pitcher Ray J.L. tied Jim Mangano’s strikeout record of 15 while going 4 for 4 in the process. Big Tommy Stelmach had 3 hits and ribbies. Norbie Miller, Lynn Chapel and catcher Bob Staffin also starred. Yessiree! Those were the days.

Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.

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