Wednesday, August 12, 2009

‘He was absolutely a leader’

Lewis Harris, innovative firefighter, dies at 87

By Joseph Kellard

Lewis Harris and Stanley Hirschfield had much in common, starting with their boyhoods in the Bronx. The same age, the cousins were Boy Scouts and lifeguards together. During World War II they enlisted in the military. And they followed their fathers’ bootsteps into the New York City Fire Department.

But in his poetic eulogy to Harris, a Lido Beach resident who died at 87 after a lengthy illness on Aug. 6, Hirschfield underscored his cousin’s distinctions throughout their lives.

“Lew would study, I would play and our differences in a way brought us both together, closer every day,” Hirschfield, 87, a retired mechanic from Massapequa, read to some 500 mourners at Harris’s elaborate, firematic funeral at Congregation Beth Shalom in Long Beach last Sunday.

“He went the way of scholars, I dickered with machines, I enlisted in the Navy, he entered the Marines.”

Harris and Hirschfield joined the FDNY in the late 1940s, with a company in Harlem. He went on to a distinguished career with various companies throughout Manhattan, marked by leadership, mentoring and innovation.

“When it came to firefighting, Lew was one of the best, and it didn’t take him long to rise above the rest.”

Harris developed and patented fire equipment. Because a 2-inch hose was too powerful to hold and a 1 1/2-inch was too small, he created a 1 3/4 -inch line that enhanced speed and mobility, according to PLLFD Chief Dennis Collins, a retired FDNY firefighter. “He was just the best,” Collins said of Harris’s devotion to his work. “He was all fire department.”

Harris became the FDNY’s chief of training, communications and operations at Randall’s Island, where he built a new training center and developed and patented two types of nozzles and a pull-down alarm box system. His other contributions were the Starfire System, which computerized the fire department in the 1970s, and the introduction of the Jaws of Life to the PLLFD, which, according to Collins, may have been the first company in Nassau County to use this tool, which helps extract motorists from cars involved in serious accidents.

“When I first met him, I was a teenage lifeguard down at the beach in Lido,” Collins recalled. “And most guys who came down would take shoes to hold down their blankets. He would come down with Local Law 5, a big building code book which was about the size of three Bibles. And that was his reading for the day.”

A graduate of George Washington High School in Manhattan and NYU’s College of Engineering, Harris was a fire science instructor for 15 years at the Delahanty Institute, a now defunct civil service school, and taught fire administration at Queens College.

“He served his country well in that vast Pacific hell, and did his duty on Okinawa. For his actions and his skills, and his leadership in the hills, he was awarded the military medal Bronze Star.”

Born May 11, 1922, in the Bronx, Harris grew to 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, and was a lifeguard at Rockaway Beach, where Hirschfield introduced him to his future wife, Soni Silver, before he enlisted in the Army in 1940. He was soon transferred to the Marine Corps, which needed engineers, and became a demolition officer and an expert in mine disposal. First Lt. Harris served in the Tinian Unit in the Northern Mariana Islands during the invasion of Okinawa. After Japan’s surrender, he and his unit went to China to help repatriate the Japanese.

When he came home, Harris returned to lifeguarding and, with Hirschfield as his best man, married Soni in 1945. The couple moved to Lido Boulevard in Lido Beach, where they raised three children, Glenn, Heidi and Stefanie, and Lewis volunteered for the PLLFD.

“As a father, as a son, as a leader, he was one who inspired every person that he met.”

Glenn Harris, a Lido Beach resident and an FDNY firefighter, remembered that his father took him on fire calls when he was a boy. “Whenever any crisis happened and I would go to fires with him, just watching how my father would lead the men and doing what they did, he was such an inspiration,” Glenn said.
His father was a tough firefighter who was otherwise quite gentle with his children and grandchildren, Glenn added.

Heidi Harris Weitz's daughter, Samara Weitz, 21, said that her grandfather’s dedication to the fire department was equaled only by his dedication to his family. “Nicole, his other granddaughter, was a gymnast who was internationally ranked and actually made it all the way to the Olympic trials but broke her ankle there,” Weitz recalled. “He was so dedicated to her and pretty much paid for her whole gymnastics career. He would drive her to practice all the time. And he would pay for my dance classes. He was a second father to both of us.”

Her grandfather, Weitz recalled, loved the beach and sailing boats from Maine to the Caribbean, and was an avid lifeguard, swimmer and runner.

Mindy Warshaw, a Long Beach resident and a close friend of the Harrises, called Lewis an icon and a giving person whose mission in life was to save lives. “He had integrity and was a man you had a lot of respect for,” Warshaw said. “He was just an awesome and amazing man.”

Warshaw said that in recent years, as his health declined, Heidi Weitz converted part of her Blackheath Road home into an apartment for her parents, where her father died.

“There are very few people you will meet in your life like Lew,” Hirschfield said. “Anything good, he did. He was a straight shooter, he was a good athlete, and anyone had a problem, they went to him. He was absolutely a leader.”

Harris is survived by his wife, 85, his son, 55, and Weitz, 53, all of Lido Beach, and seven grandchildren. The Harrises’ daughter Stefanie pre-deceased her father. He was buried at Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale.

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