Remembering Ken Donnelly

By Jim Shaw

Ken Donnelly

Few people in life have that special something, Ken Donnelly was such a person. He knew early on that his calling was to serve.  Whether it was as a fire fighter, a union leader, or as a state senator, Ken Donnelly epitomized the meaning public service.  Senator Donnelly, or simply Ken as he preferred to be called, recently lost his battle with brain cancer. And, although he may be gone, his legacy will carry on through the lives he touched along the way.

I first met Ken soon after I took my first job after college.  I was hired by the Massachusetts AFL/CIO to serve as the program director for young union members.  The program was intended to motivate young union members to be more involved in the political process.  One of the first people I was introduced to was a young legislative agent from the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), his name was Ken Donnelly.  The fact that he was a Lexington fire fighter was completely coincidental. Ken took me around and introduced me to several young union activists who became the core of our program.  Most of them went on to do great things.  Ironworker Steve Lynch is now a Congressman, Red Cap Steve Tolman is a former senator and current president of the Mass AFL/CIO, assembly worker George Noel became Commissioner of Labor in Massachusetts, and Ken Donnelly went on to become the second highest ranking fire fighter and a powerful member of the State Senate.

My relationship with Ken continued for a longtime.  We became friends.  Good friends.  That was easy with Ken.  He made everyone feel as though they were a good friend.  That was his gift.

Ken spent nearly four decades as a full-time Lexington Fire Fighter.  He soon became president of the local union, then turned his attention to the state fire fighter organization.  In the early 1980s, he was elected Legislative Agent for the PFFM.  He became close to Bob McCarthy who served at the time as president of the Watertown local. Then tragedy struck the PFFM when longtime president Dusty Alward was killed in an automobile accident.  McCarthy and Donnelly took the helm of the PFFM and worked together until Ken’s election to the State Senate in 2008.

Ken was a teacher by nature.  He liked to identify talented young people and help bring them along.  Current Lexington Fire Lieutenant Mark Ferreira was one of his proteges.  Mark explained that Ken was a special kind of leader.  Almost as if he led from behind, because he was always pushing you along trying to bring the best out.  Mark said, “I first met Ken when I joined the fire department 31 years ago. I was a young kid of 21 years and he took me under his wing. He was 21 when he joined the Department too. He eventually became my lieutenant and I was on the truck with him on a regular basis. He taught me how to be a good firefighter and introduced me to the importance of being involved in the union. Serving the public was important to him, so was his desire to serve his fellow firefighters.”

Ferreira explains that Ken spent the greater part of his career at the East Lexington fire house. He said, “He was the union president for the Lexington local and eventually became the legislative agent for the state fire fighters union or the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. After several years of serving as legislative agent, he was elected statewide secretary-treasurer of the PFFM. Ken was the best! He always took good care of his crew. He was always fun to be around. He had a great sense of humor, but he took his responsibilities as a fire fighter very seriously. One of the things I remember most fondly is that his crew always ate very well. Ken was a great cook. He would cook every Sunday at the East Lexington station. I remember one time we were working a shift on New Year’s Eve and when the other station called to say they ordered Chinese food, Ken wanted better.  He decided we weren’t going to eat “that junk” and he cooked beautiful homemade Chinese food for everyone at the East Lexington station. It was the most delicious Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.”

Mark talks about Ken’s dedication to fire fighters who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Mark said, “Ken felt that fallen fire fighters had waited too long to be recognized in way befitting to their sacrifice, so he helped to move forward the Massachusetts Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial.”   Ferreira continued, “He served on the original board of directors. He was very active in securing the site, raising the needed funds, and the effort to construct the memorial. He was particularly involved with the design of the memorial. He served as chairman of the board for a while right up until the time he passed away. We will be adding his name to the memorial at a ceremony this fall”

In a final thought, Mark shared what might be Ken’s greatest legacy.  He said, “What made Ken great and where he succeeded, was that he could always find common ground with both sides. His gift was his ability to educate. Whether it was negotiating in Lexington or as a member of the Senate, he was effective because he was fair and he educated those he dealt with. He was a special kind of a person who left an indelible impression, not only here in Lexington but in the town of Arlington where he lived and in the Senate where in nine short years he became a top member of the leadership.”

Ken had the ability to affect change and motivate people.  A longtime friend of Ken’s is United States Senator Ed Markey.  I talked with Senator Markey about Ken and as you might guess, he said Ken was one of his “go to guys for advice and counsel.”  Senator Markey said, “Ken Donnelly was Massachusetts. He was a guy who worked his way up, worked his way through UMass, was a fire fighter for thirty-seven years. He was a happy warrior. I always thought of him as a sort of Hubert Humphrey, fighting as hard as he could for the causes which he cared about, while at the same time enjoying the battle. He communicated that to everyone with a wink and a smile.”

Recalling a night of just unwinding with his friend Ken, Senator Markey talked about spending time at Fenway Park. He said, “I miss him. I took him in 2013 to the deciding game of the ALCS championship at Fenway Park. You might remember that was the game where Shane Victorino hit a grand slam to win the series. We sat in the third row next to Mike Pence and his wife. For Kenny it was a beautiful moment. He got the Red Sox, the Governor of Indiana, and the new U.S. Senator. We talked politics and baseball for 4 hours culminating in Victorino’s grand slam to win the game 5-2. We left and went back to his car and he drove me back home to Malden. That’s a great memory for me. I remember him as a good friend, and just an all around decent guy. He was a down-to-earth guy who loved politics and loved everything about life itself. He never forgot where he came from.”

Ken walked with kings and commoners alike.  Everyone was equal in his eyes.  After a long day of fighting fires, negotiating with governmental leaders, writing pension policy, or sitting through long legislative hearings, Ken was at his best when he was home on the grill or in the kitchen.  That’s how Ken showed his love.  Good food and companionship.  Ken and I spent lots of time together during his campaigns and driving to political conventions.  He always made me feel needed by asking me for advice, even though he already had the answers.  He was a friend to me and my family.  I will always remember his kindness, guidance and generosity of spirit.

Ken was a Senator and a fire fighter, but his deepest devotion was reserved for his family. His wife Judy was at the center of his existence.  The same is true about his children Ryan, Keith and Brenna. His grand children too.  He valued his time with family.  I remember Ken telling me that being a Senator was not going to interfere with spending time with his family.  And it didn’t. He valued his time at home and visiting their place in New Hampshire.  He loved the outdoors and spending time with his kids.

The pageantry at his funeral was nothing less than spectacular.  Flagged-draped fire trucks, hundreds of fire fighters lined up in formal uniforms, hundreds of friends and family were all there to pay respect to a simple man who made a lasting impression.

 

Rest in peace my good friend.

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