SOUTH PORTLAND – Beneath a brilliant, blue sky, with bagpipes and a full Color Guard to lead the way, 40 South Portland firefighters marched into the Forest City Cemetery this past Sunday.

The firefighters, each in full dress, stopped and saluted in unison before a small, simple stone. A handful of retirees nearby stood at attention. The ceremony was brief, but done with all the pomp and solemnity one would expect of a fire service funeral.

Still, what made the event stand out, what made it really something out of the ordinary, was that this memorial was not staged to honor some recent line-of-duty death. Instead, the men of Local 1476 of the International Association of Firefighters took time out of their lives to remember a man few of them had never met, a man who died 46 years ago, before most of them were even born.

They were remembering Frank McPherson, a fallen South Portland firefighter nearly forgotten after his death more than four decades ago, his gravesite “lost” in the folds of time.

“It’s a pretty specuial thing to be in a position to honor those who came before you,” said Shawn St. Germain, one of the junior members of the department, who was born long after McPherson died.

“They did the job before we were here and paved the way,” he said. “They set a lot of the examples and traditions of the fire service we continue to follow now.”

Frank McPherson came into this world July 18, 1917, and left it on June 8, 1965, just shy of his 48th birthday. Two years earlier, he was one of 26 firefighters to sign on as a charter member of Local 1476. His name, it’s worth mentioning, appears on the very top line of the signatory list.

“I don’t know that that necessarily means anything,” said South Portland firefighter Richard Foley, “but it is his name right there at the top of the certificate we got from International that is our charter.”

If McPherson did take charge of the unionizing effort, as his “John Hancock” seems to suggest, it may have been one of his few turns at leadership.

“He was as meek and mild as could be, and poor as a church mouse,” remembered 25-year South Portland firefighter Francis “Rich” Richardson, 76. “But he was well liked. He never had a bad word for anyone.”

“He was a gentleman,” agreed another 25-year veteran, John “Bucky” Campbell, 73. “When it came time to do anything, whether it was to jump in the hose tower, or mow the lawn at the station, he was always the first one. He wasn’t afraid to get busy. He worked hard.”

Maybe a little too hard. In those days, firefighters, even those who worked full time, made very little money.

“It was $63 for 64 hours,” recalled Richardson.

And so, says Richardson, McPherson also worked at a cement factory that used to be located in the city’s Thornton Heights neighborhood. Every day, said Campbell, McPherson would walk a mile-and-a half to his shift at the fire station, never complaining.

“I dont think that poor bugger ever made more than a buck a week,” said Richardson. “Sometimes, when the guys had some extra lunch, they’d make sure Frankie got some.”

Meanwhile, McPherson’s great joy was “Scotty,” a station dalmation that, based on reports, might have easily passed for a Jersey heiffer.

“He must’ve weighed 300 pounds,” said Richardson, with a laugh. “Oh, how Frankie loved that dog. He always made sure he was fed and had water.”

It was around the time that South Portland firefighters unionized that McPherson had a heart attack. He stopped riding the trucks after that, instead becoming a “board man,” what today we’d call a dispatcher.

“That was a real tough job, stressful, for someone with a heart condition,” said Richardson, “but it did allow him to keep his job.”

Eventually, McPherson succomed to lingering health problems, including near-constant respiratory distress. And while the cause of death was ill health, there are some who wonder if he might be classified a line-of-duty casualty, based on today’s standards.

“We can speculate,” says Foley. “They didn’t wear Scott’s [breathing apparatus] until the ‘70s. Even when I came on in 1979 there were still guys who said, ‘Hey kid, don’t worry about those things,’ so, they certainly weren’t in place when Frank was firefighting.

“Guys were real smoke eaters then,” says Foley. “But, back then, unless you died with a building collapsing on top of you, you weren’t considered a line-of-duty death.”

And that’s where McPherson’s story might have ended. But firefighters are a brotherhood and they take care of their own. Every year, on Memorial Day, the South Portland Fire Department places flags on the graves of all its former members – 12 in Forest City, some buried as far away as Pittsfield.

Two years ago, Foley was making the rounds with the former keeper of the flags, Steve Hayworth, learning where each grave was located. Hayworth, who died in May 2010, was sick at the time of the tour and Foley says the trip was a passing of the torch, of sorts.

Unfortunately, prevous passes hadn’t gone quite so smoothly. Hayworth had a list of all former members – there’s a wall at the Central Fire Station, on Broadway, with a picture of every former firefighter, including McPherson – so Hayworth knew he’d “lost” one.

Exactly when the department lost track of McPherson’s gravesite is hard to say. Hayworth himself might have forgotten where it was, or, more likely, its location was never conveyed to him, and was overlooked until he tried to create a complete list for Foley, who was to carry on in his stead.

Although it may seem unlikely that a grave could be lost, Forest City did not always look like it does today.

“When I first came on the fire department, we used to come right through here to go to inspect ships at the oil company tanks,” explained retiree Sam Simonson, who put in 36 years on the South Portland Fire Department.

“This whole part of the cemetery used to be the pauper’s section,” said Simonson, motioning to the area around McPherson’s grave. “You’d drive through it and there would be only sections that were mowd. There were large sections that they never touched because there was no perpetual care.

“Heck, there’d be grass this high,” said Simonson, holding his hand just below belt level.

“You can still see that this was the pauper’s section,” said Foley. “You can see all around here where there are graves that have settled, but the markers, if there were any, have gone.”

Foley found McPherson last Memorial Day. Certain the grave was in Forest City, but unable to fund the marker, Foley placed a call to the cemetery’s front office. Sure enough, they had the records, and guided Foley to the site as he described over his cell phone each headstone he passed.

The site was well tended, but neither Foley nor the two other firefighters with him that day liked what they saw. McPherson’s marker was not a stone, but a short, wooden plank, stuck into the ground by a couple of stakes, with a small nameplate screwed to it.

“From a distance, with the way it’s painted, and the weathering, it almost looked like an old Civil War-style granite or marble stone,” recalled Foley. “But, as we got closer, we were like, what is this with the wooden marker?

“We were, like, we didn’t know him, but that’s not right,”said Foley. “That’s going to go sometime and then the grave is gone. Really, it’s a wonder it’s lasted this long.”

On the way back to the station that day, Foley and his crew stopped by Maine Memorial, on Main Street. Owner Paul DiMatteo quickly agreed to donate a stone marker. The union paid for the engraving out of its “good and welfare fund.”

“If we don’t do anything else, we make sure we take care of our own,” said Foley. “Hopefully, this stone will last forever, because it’s only a matter of time before the wooden marker gives in to the ravages of time.”

“We’re a family,” says Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, who was born the year after McPherson died. “It says something about the group of men and woman we have working for this city, who have been in the local over the years. That they’re willing to look back and honor those who have come before us. It speak to the integrity, the pride and the honor that these guys have every day when they put their uniforms on.”

That pride was evident Sunday in every firefighter present, from the youngest to the oldest.

For Richardson, however, the service was even more personal. He made the trip despite the cancer in his spine, knees and feet that makes each step a chore.

“I wouldn’t have missed this. I owe it to him,” he said. “I worked with him and I’m just so proud of what the guys are doing here. These guys, they do this for all the retirees. They’re a hell of a group. If I need something, need to get wood in or anything like that, they’ll come by and help me.

“And I know, when something happens to me,” says Richardson, breaking down for just a moment before choking back the tears, “they’ve assured me they’ll be there to take care of my wife.”

“The Brotherhood is strong,” says Guimond, as if no further explanation is necessary.

According to retired firefighter Mike Murphy, McPherson was predeceased by his wife and one daughter.

“I think there’s another daughter and maybe some grandchildren out of state somewhere,” he says.

Unfortuantely, no family members could be located. “It sure wasn’t for lack of trying,” says Foley, who points out that he’s marked the GPS location of McPherson’s grave, and all others the department cares for.

“Now, when I’m gone, the info’s there,” he says. “And, if a member of the family does come forward, we hope it’s consoling to them to know that Frank’s grave isn’t going to be lost to the eons. We know where he is, and he’s being taken care of by his other family.”

A new marble stone is dedicated Sunday at Forest City Cemetery
at the grave of Frank McPherson, a South Portland firefighter who
died more than 40 years ago. At ceremonies to unveil the new stone
are, from left, retired South Portland Fire Lt. Richard Small, Fire
Chief Kevin Guimond, Firefighter Richard Foley, who led the effort
to honor McPherson, and Firefighter Mike Norton. (Photo by Rich
South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, front row, left, and
Capt. Mike Williams, front row, right, lead a contingent of fellow
South Portland firefighters into Forest City Cemetery to honor the
memory of a nearly-forgotten colleague, Frank McPherson, who was
buried in the paupers section of the cemetery, his grave marked by
a wooden plank.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.