HYANNIS – The note in a teenager’s careful handwriting tells the tale. The permission slip dated October 18, 1972 states: “I give my son Harold permission to belong to the Hyannis Auxiliary Fire Dept. Sincerely (Mrs.) Mary Brunelle.”
Once he had his mother’s signature on the note, Harold was on his way to the career that would last 44 years and take him from junior firefighter to firefighter, senior firefighter, lieutenant, captain, deputy chief and up to the rank of chief of the Hyannis Fire Department. It is the only profession Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle has ever known.
That’s not unusual. Brunelle said, “People stay in for their career. It’s a real calling to do this kind of work.”
Brunelle, 61, is retiring Monday, October 31, 2016, 19 years to the day that he was appointed acting chief of the department and 44 years since he signed on to the auxiliary program as an eager teenager who wanted nothing else in his whole life than to be a fireman.
Brunelle grew up in a house a few blocks away from the current fire station. He has spent his whole life in this town, on these streets, in Hyannis—a place he loves.
Barnstable Police Sergeant Sean Sweeney, who has known Brunelle since 1978 when Sweeney was a summer cop, said the chief has earned his stripes and more.
“You can obtain rank but it takes a certain person to obtain respect,” Sweeney said. As chief, Brunelle is approachable, and as a neighborhood guy, he knows the territory like no one else.
“He’s a Hyannis guy. He didn’t come from off Cape. He grew up and saw what should be done over the years. He knows the neighborhood,” Sweeney said.
The chief has been a mentor for some of the younger men on the force like EMS Supervisor Mike Medeiros. Medeiros said he has appreciated how the chief has given him the history behind how things are done in the department as he has served as “a great mentor.”
“Basically the department is a part of him. He lives and breathes it. It’s basically everything he’s done his whole adult life,” Medeiros said.
Debe Sciavi, the chief’s confidential executive secretary, said one thing that sets Brunelle apart is his approachability, an open door policy for everyone in the department. Another is his sense of humor.
“He has one of those belly laughs that gets everyone laughing,” she said. But she, like others, pointed out that Brunelle is “a local boy from the neighborhood” and that is one of his signature qualities.
The chief enjoys nothing as much as strolling from the station to Main Street and picking up “his” sandwich at the Little Sandwich Shop. Called the “Chief’s Special,” it is a turkey rollup with, lettuce, tomato and mayo. He has gotten the same sandwich for years, Schiavi said, and eventually it was named after him.
It seemed fitting then to take a drive through the old neighborhood with Chief Brunelle, a drive through streets filled with memories.
First is a drive through the neighborhood where Brunelle lived as a kid, past the modest ranch house where he grew up on Bearse’s Way.
In becoming a fireman, Brunelle fulfilled a dream that his father had. The elder Brunelle, after serving in World War II, died in 1959 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, leaving a wife and three children.
“He always wanted to be a firefighter,” Brunelle said of his father, Harold Brunelle Sr.
Harold Jr. was just four years old when his father died of ALS.
Brunelle’s father’s family was from Worcester and his grandparents on his mother’s side were from Portugal.
Harold’s mother, Mary, raised her three children herself, first in Falmouth where she grew up and then moving to Hyannis to be near her sisters. Harold grew up in a close-knit neighborhood near the former Hyannis East Elementary School, where his mother worked in the cafeteria.
On the wide boulevard of Bearse’s Way and nearby in the area known as the tree streets and a couple more blocks down to Main Street, Harold and his friends had free range of the neighborhood growing up.
Riding around in the chief’s car, there is a sense that he knows these roads better than anyone. This—the nine square miles of the Hyannis Fire District—is home.
When the chief was a boy, the elementary school was next to the old Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Skating Rink, and the students at the school were given special pins to gain free admittance to the rink and allowed to walk over and skate during recess. “All [former] Hyannis East students, that’s something we have in common: we remember skating during recess,” he said.
The old rink has now been replaced by the Hyannis Youth & Community Center, one of the improvements in the neighborhood that Brunelle lauds.
Driving down Bearse’s Way past some of the streets that have been the scene of violent drug-related crime in recent years, the chief said comments lumping all the people in these neighborhoods together as criminals bothers him greatly.
“It really upset me,” he said, while driving through the loop of General Patton Drive. “When I was growing up, many, many families in town at one time lived here. It was veterans housing. If you were poor, this is where you started out.”
And it is where Brunelle’s parents first lived when they moved to Hyannis when his father returned from serving in World War II. “For the most part, good people live around here,” he said.
If there is one house where people are dealing drugs that can cause people to label a whole neighborhood, he said, but that is not fair. “It doesn’t mean it’s a bad town or a bad neighborhood,” the chief said.
In the 50 years since the chief grew up here, Hyannis has become an urban center. But back then, Brunelle said, Hyannis really was a little village, the kind of a place where nobody locked their doors and children played freely throughout the streets.
Driving around Fresh Holes Road, another cul de sac off Bearse’s Way that has seen some violent crimes in recent years, is for Brunelle just a slice of the village that he knows well. For Brunelle, this is another working class neighborhood. “It hasn’t changed a lot,” he said. “These are good people just trying to survive, like the rest of us.”
He drove through the area known as the tree streets, with names like Oak, Elm and Locust. “We knew all the people in the neighborhood. We still know most of them,” he said.
Passing the newly restored Ridgewood Park in the neighborhood off Bearse’s, Brunelle said the park was a popular place for kids to play basketball. “Hyannis was such a great place to grow up, so many friends and places to play,” he said.
Back then, Route 132 was mostly woods with a couple of motels and one bar, the chief recalled. But it did have a big attraction, Storyland, an amusement park was located near where the Cape Cod Mall is now. The chief drove through the mall parking lot and into the parking lot near TD Bank. “This was where Storyland was,” he said. “We used to ride over on our bikes and sneak in to Storyland. It was in the middle of nowhere.”
In the 1960s in the summertime, Hyannis became, to a young kid, like the center of the universe, as people came from all over to visit Cape Cod. The kids would walk or ride their bikes to Hathaways Pond and spend the day there, he said.
“The prettiest girls in the world came in the summer,” Brunelle said. One of those became his wife. They met when she was visiting the Cape in the summer and the two just celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. They have four children in their 20s, three girls and a boy, and grandchildren living in Florida.
Brunelle, who now lives in Centerville, speaks of Hyannis with superlatives. “It’s always been the hub of the Cape. It’s always had the hustle and bustle feeling for me as a kid growing up, always had the excitement of where things are happening.”
But as exciting as Hyannis was in the summer, what really had the attention of Brunelle and his friends was the fire whistle.
They could clearly hear the whistle from the Hyannis station which was then on Barnstable Road, but they could also hear the whistles from West Barnstable, Barnstable, Osterville, and, if the wind was right, even Yarmouth. Each whistle had a distinct sound and they learned to tell where a fire was by the sound of the whistle. They would get on their bikes and pedal as fast as they could, chasing fire trucks to the scene.
“We’d hear the whistle and off we’d go,” Brunelle said. “We got so proficient at it, we could tell just by the sound what trucks were responding and where they were going, We got real good at tracking down fires.”
Brunelle’s uncle Joe Cabral was a call firefighter for the Hyannis department and his friend Eric Farrenkopf’s father was a captain with the Hyannis department. The boys would hang around the station on Barnstable Road in the imposing brick building where the Horgan Insurance Agency is now. They would dream of being firemen themselves.
One day in October 1972 they got the opportunity. Chief Glen Clough decided to start a training program for junior firefighters. They needed 10 kids to get the program started. Harold Brunelle signed up, as did his cousins Joe and Peter Cabral, Eric and six others. Of the 10 who signed up, five went on to join the department and spent their careers there, Brunelle said.
Brunelle’s junior firefighter helmet, still a vibrant orange after all these years, sits on a shelf above his desk at the station along with one of the helmets he wore when he joined the department.
He recalls that the teens were thrilled to wear their first helmet. “We were very proud. That’s an understatement,” he said. But they wished it looked more like the mostly black ones worn by the real firemen.
“We stuck out like sore thumbs,” he said with a laugh.
The teens’ position in the auxiliary program did have advantages. For instance when the fire whistle sounded, they were allowed to leave school and rush to the scene of the fire where they would carry hoses and help with other tasks at the scene.
The auxiliary training started off with the basics, how to maintain the fire hose and worked their way up to ladders, tools, and eventually how to fight fires. They participated in training at the fire academy once a week.
The teens spent more and more time at the firehouse. “We were here every waking moment they allowed us in the door,” he said. “They might have gotten sick of us.”
He was in the junior firefighter training program for two years. Firefighters had to be 19 years old to be hired.
On Harold Brunelle’s 19th birthday, on August 4, 1974, he was hired as a full time firefighter with the Hyannis Fire Department.
His friend Eric Farrenkopf also joined the department where Eric’s father, Richard Farrenkopf ended up serving as chief. Also joining up were Joe and Peter Cabral and Eric’s brother Craig who recently retired as a captain with the department.
A lot has changed since Brunelle joined the department as a junior firefighter in 1972. That year, the department responded to 1,124 calls. In 2015, the Hyannis department responded to 7,002 calls.
Perhaps the fastest growth came between the years of 1965 to 1972, after the department moved into its new station on High School Road. Calls jumped from just over 500 per year to more than double that in five years.
“We went from a village to a bustling community,” Brunelle said.
As the number of calls grew, so did the staff. From two daytime firefighters and a chief in 1965 to 16 firefighters and the chief in 1974 up to 54 uniform staff today.
Some of that growth in Hyannis through the 1960s and 1970s has been attributed to the Kennedy family of Hyannisport who brought international attention to the village when John F. Kennedy was elected US President in 1961. Chief Brunelle had a particularly close relationship with the president’s brother, Senator Edward Kennedy.
Growing up in Hyannis, Brunelle’s memories of President Kennedy include seeing a motorcade going by once or twice. But over the years, he became especially close to Senator Kennedy. Brunelle said his family attended St. Francis Xavier Church, which was also the Kennedy’s family church. He remembered they sat in the west wing of the church, on the opposite side from where his family sat. But over the years, being on the fire department, Brunelle would have occasion to be present as Kennedy would bring special guests to the Hyannisport compound, including presidents and vice presidents.
Over time, he got involved on a personal level, building up a relationship with the senator. “I had gotten to know the family very, very well over the years.” He would be invited over for singalongs that Kennedy would have with his mother and other family members. “He was very, very conscientious with his mother. I got to see that side of him. ”
When Brunelle’s own mother died, one of the first condolence calls he got was from Ted Kennedy, the chief said.
If they were having a family gathering, Brunelle might be there helping out, flipping burgers, for instance.
“If they got to know you and trusted you, you were always welcome,” he said. “That’s the way the senator was. You were like family to him.”
He remembers clearly the day in 2008 when the senator was flown to a Boston hospital, the check-up that resulted in his diagnosis of a brain tumor. It is a day the chief remembers as one of the saddest of his life. A year later, Senator Kennedy died and the chief was there alongside thousands of other mourners paying their last respects.
“I’m glad I had that opportunity to know him as a human being. He was a very kind man,” Brunelle said.
Driving down Barnstable Road and west on Main Street, the chief named various businesses long gone: “That was a car parts place. There was a machine shop. That was a hardware store.” He recalled the old nightclubs, John Morgan’s; the Velvet Hammer; and This is the Place, where a huge fire destroyed the building one night.
At the corner of Barnstable Road and Main Street, there was the Mayflower Restaurant. “Like most kids, I worked there, waiting tables, busing tables,” he said.
Passing Cape Cod Hospital, the chief talked about how the operation has grown and how the fire department works with the hospital staff. The chief said that the speedy response times of the Hyannis department and the proximity of the hospital mean that people having medical emergencies in Hyannis are more likely to get the care they need in time. “Not to wish anything bad to happen, but if you’re going to have a heart attack, Hyannis is the place,” he said.
Driving further east past the Hyannis Village Green, Chief Brunelle pointed to what is now the School Administration Building but in 1995 was a part of the teacher’s college that was to become Cape Cod Community College. The building burned to the ground a few weeks after it was built and with no fire department, that was the impetus for starting the Hyannis Fire Department. “In 1896, they formed the district, all because this building burned to the ground,” he said.
Further to the west end of Main Street is where young Harold Brunelle had a paper route for many years with 56 customers. He delivered the newspapers from his bicycle and when it snowed, he loaded them on a sled.
Delivering newspapers is how he got to know many of the business people of the town.
Not just the village of Hyannis has changed over the years. The job of a firefighter, whether putting out a fire or responding to an emergency, that has changed too.
The chief said, as far as public safety goes, there have been a number of improvements. Car accidents are less deadly because of seat belts and air bags. And fires are often caught early because of the commonness of smoke alarms. Less flammable building materials also make a difference as do stricter building codes. Also, the commonness of cell phones means passersby can call in a fire, which also speeds response.
“The difference is today we don’t have as many spectacular fires. We have a lot more fires now than we ever did but the fires today are kept smaller,” he said.
The chief remembered some large fires. In the early 70s, a fire destroyed the Center Theater on Main Street, Senior Pizza, the former location of Jack’s Drum Shop on east Main Street and a Polynesian-themed lounge that was rebuilt into the Paddock restaurant on the West End Rotary.
But Brunelle said the worst fires have been in private homes because, until recently, there were no requirements for fire alarms. “Those are the most serious and most tragic fires,” he said.
The other big difference is the training for firefighters. Instead of call firefighters which were common throughout the Cape when Brunelle started his career, now all the big department have professional firefighters on duty with advanced training and equipment.
But fire response is not the only change. “Car accidents used to be more serious.” The chief attributed this to cars being safer, from the materials to make the cars, to seat belts and air bags, to the glass used on windshields.
The biggest reason that car accidents tend to be less severe, Brunelle said is “less drinking and high speed driving. “You used to have a lot of crashes on weekends, people liquored up and hot rodding,” he said. An unexpected factor in fewer car crashes, Brunelle said, is increased traffic on the Cape. “More traffic slows it down,” he said.
Brunelle said the Hyannis department was always way ahead when it came to medical response. In fact, he said, it is the only department besides Los Angeles and Seattle which had a rescue squad and first aid and responded to medical emergencies beginning in the early 1950s.
“We were way ahead of the curve. We’ve always done it,” he said.
It is not unusual to have generations of families serving as firefighters. Chief Brunelle speculated on why that is. He attributed it to the long hours over many years that firefighters work.
Because of those long hours, the fellow firefighters become like family. And that is a bond that firefighters also share with other firefighters throughout the world. “You can go into any fire station and have that connection,” he said.
Firefighters work nights, weekends and holidays when their wives and children come to the station and celebrate the holiday at the firehouse.
There’s lots of celebrating holiday at the fire house and the family comes down to the station. The children of firefighters see that camaraderie and they want the same career.
If firefighting runs in families, moustaches seem to run on firemen. If you look around at the staff at a typical fire station, you begin to notice this characteristic. Some of the moustaches are trim and understated like Brunelle’s, but others are more assertive, bushy or unusually long. They are daring, unapologetic moustaches.
The chief explained the moustaches on firefighters are a tradition. He grew one as soon as he could in order to fit in with the other firemen.
“My heroes were firefighters. They had moustaches, so I wanted to have a moustache. For me, it’s that simple,” he said.
There has been speculation over the years as to the benefits of moustaches for firemen, whether it helps to filter the smoke from the longs or helps with breathing in smoke-filled spaces, Brunelle said.
“I have no idea how or why it became a tradition,” he said. The chief said the tradition appears to be ending as in the last few years fewer of the young firefighters choose to go the moustache route. And, the chief said, for him the end of that tradition is a shame.
Those following the news in Hyannis in recent years have seen the chief as one of the main spokesmen for the effort to build a new Hyannis Fire Station. After three votes that did not garner the necessary two-thirds to proceed with the project, a vote last fall finally allowed the new station to go forward. Chief Brunelle said that vote was for him “very emotional. It was one of the high points of my career.” He said he was working on the effort for more than 15 years, beginning back in 1998.
It may take up to three years to build the new station and the chief knew he could not wait to retire until then. Nevertheless, he is gratified that the long-awaited process to construct a new station has begun.
It was the development of the Cape Cod Mall that signaled major changes in Hyannis, the chief said. But along with rampant development, the chief pointed out that there have also been many improvements. In particular, he points to improvements on Bearse’s Way in recent years, including new lighting and wide sidewalks. Route 132 was also widened, making the road safer, the chief said. He pointed to beautfication efforts along Main Street and the Hyannis Village Green, including the Walkway to the Sea.
One thing he really misses along Main Street is the miniature golf course. “It was a big part of Main Street and growing up,” he said.
He recalls the two movie theaters that used to be on Main Street. He and his friends also liked to go to Jack
and Harry’s, a sporting goods store and bike shop that was located to the west of Puritan’s Clothing Co. Next door, there was a pharmacy that had a soda fountain.
There was also Rexal Drug Store, WT Grants, a department store at 500 Main Street, a Woolworth’s, Zayre’s department store and several grocery stores, including the popular Charlie’s Market on Barnstable Road.
The chief said that the area near the current station on High School Road was wooded back when the station was built. Down towards Main Street was the First National Supermarket, and nearby was King’s Department Store and the A&P Grocery.
“Everything was downtown,” he said.
After a roundabout tour of a portion of the nine square miles that make up the Hyannis Fire District, the chief maneuvered his shiny red department-issued SUV into the station’s parking lot. The time has come to talk about future plans.
Brunelle’s wife, Deb, is planning to retire in June and the two hope to do some traveling, visiting the grandkids in Florida. Brunelle said he may get a part-time job, just to stay active.
“Whatever it is that I do, I love this job tremendously.” But, he added, “It is a very stressful job.” He said he is looking forward to not carrying that stress around with him during retirement. “If I get another job, it ends at 5pm. I’m not carrying a beeper.”
But don’t be surprised if you seen him in the Little Sandwich Shop, picking up a Chief’s Special, just for old time’s sake.
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