Portland firefighters mourn honorary 'king of the castle'

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PORTLAND — The Portland Fire Department last week said goodbye to its honorary deputy fire chief, who was known to many simply as “Foxy.”

James Fox, 59, died May 21 after a brief illness.

Fox, a longtime West End resident before moving to South Portland, was a constant presence at the Bramhall station on Congress Street since it was built in 1966.

Over the last 35 years, Fox, who had Down syndrome, would spend his afternoons watching television, talking with the firefighters, watching them train, and on one occasion led a new group of cadets during their drills.

“He was king of the castle down here,” Lt. Gary Plamondon said. “The guys loved him and took care of him. He felt like he was part of the team.”

Dozens of firefighters in full dress uniform went to Parkside on Wednesday – on the first sunny day in weeks – to send off Fox as they would one of their own. 

They stood at attention as Fox’s fire engine-red casket was moved into and out of Sacred Heart Church on Mellen Street. A bagpiper played a mournful tune.

The funeral procession with three fire trucks crawled slowly past the Bramhall station, where more firefighters stood at attention and saluted as the procession paused, before taking Fox to Calvary Cemetery in South Portland, where he was buried.

Plamondon said firefighters are still struggling to cope with the loss, since Fox was such a fixture, often opening the garage doors when the fire engines returned from a call.

“He was just so lovable,” Plamondon said, noting how Fox would also announce his arrival at the station. “He’d look at you, you’d put your arms out and go, ‘Foxy!’ And he’d come running up and just hug you and just hold on to you for dear life. It was the greatest feeling.”

Plamondon said Fox had unconditional love for the Fire Department, and Fox’s brother, Jack, said firefighters returned that love.

He said it was not uncommon for Jim Fox to accompany firefighters on camping and fishing trips and to Boston Red Sox games. He was even invited to weddings and would “supervise” his firefighter friends’ home improvement projects.

“He had Down syndrome, but it had nothing to do with that,” Jack Fox said. “There were no labels. No pity. No excuses. It was just Jim. It was a legitimate friendship.”

Fox said his brother would often go to Congress Street after school to watch the fire station being built. He was there when it opened in 1966 and the first fire trucks were backed in.

“He basically never left,” Fox said.

Plamondon said firefighters pulled out all of the stops for Fox’s birthday. When it became clear that Fox’s health was failing, retirees returned to the station to celebrate last Dec. 12.

In some ways, it was just another birthday, only with more people. Plamondon said each shift made Fox his favorite dinner of spaghetti and meatballs and his favorite dessert: chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

“Four shifts, it was the same over,” Plamondon said.

In 2003, Fox was named an honorary deputy firefighter. It was a surprise honor that he was most proud of, Jack Fox said.

Fox recalled the formal awards ceremony when his brother received the honor. Other recipients simply walked up to the front of the room, received their honors and returned to their seats. 

But not his brother.

“Jim heads to the podium,” Fox said, noting people were nervous about what might happen next. “(But) he gave the most heart-warming talk for just a few minutes. He looked out and said, ‘You’re my friends …'”

“That was 2003,” he said. “I still have a hard time talking about it.”

Plamondon and Fox said Jim Fox was not shy about barking out a few orders at the fire station, or playing some practical jokes. 

Both recalled one instance where Jim Fox was allowed to call out the marching cadence during the drills for a group of cadets.

“He would stand there at attention, hollering out the orders with the drill instructor,” Plamondon said. “He was so proud he would get them to march, right along side the drill instructor.”

“He almost had them out in the middle of Congress Street,” Fox recalled.

Fox said his brother, who was a participant in the Special Olympics for several years and a wrestling fan, was also involved on the community outside of the Fire Department.

He was employed by Goodwill Industries for more than 25 years as a warehouse technician and was involved in the community skills program. Later, he worked at the Morrison Center in the Seedlings and Ahead One Program.

He also enjoyed boating, bowling, golf, swimming, attending swim meets with his brother and spending time at the family cottage on Long Lake in Harrison.

Plamondon said firefighters plan to create a memorial for Jim Fox at the station. But Jack Fox said his brother’s legacy will be more than his love of the Fire Department.

“Jim received a lot of love and acceptance,” Fox said. “But he gave as much as he got. He lived a real life. It wasn’t sheltered.

“The education Jim gave us,” he added, “… introduced everyone to the importance of judging people as individuals.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Traffic on Congress Street came to a brief halt in front of the Bramhall Fire Station so firefighters could salute the funeral procession for Jim Fox.

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Portland frefighters salute as the coffin bearing Jim Fox is carried out of Sacred Heart Church on May 25. Fox, 59, was a former West End kid with Down syndrome who found a second home with three generations of firefighters at the Bramhall station.

James Fox, 59, was known as “Foxy” at the Bramhall fire station on Congress Street in Portland, where he was a constant presence since it was built in 1966.

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