By Dustin Brown
Kenneth Phelan was the first infant baptized when the Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church opened its doors in Middle Village in 1960.
Forty-one years later, the baby grew up to become a hero fireman, and the congregation again assembled in a celebration of his life, which he lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Phelan’s fellow firefighters nicknamed him “Shuffles,” because he would drag his feet so loudly his comrades could hear him from another room.
But the sound of his feet could hardly compare to the sound of his voice. He was “the ultimate conversationalist,” said Lt. James O’Donnell, his longtime partner with the NYPD, where Phelan served before moving to the Fire Department in 1989.
His conversations invariably focused on his family — his wife, Patricia, and his four children.
“He talked about them incessantly,” O’Donnell said. “They were the jewels in his crown.”
His warm manner and selfless devotion to others rapidly won him friends in the firehouse and beyond.
“Kenny was everyone’s friend, he was everyone’s confidant, he was everyone’s buddy, and he was just a plain great guy,” said Firefighter Stephen Curran, who served with Phelan at Engine 16, Ladder 7.
He was the sort of friend you would want around at a time in need, and many who spoke at the memorial recalled crises when his help proved vital.
O’Donnell, his police partner, described riding in a squad car with Phelan when he felt the right side of his body go numb.
“Over my protest, Kenny rushed me to the hospital,” O’Donnell said, remembering how his partner spent a day and a half by his side. “He wouldn’t leave until he was convinced in his own mind that I was out of danger.”
Curran, meanwhile, recalled how the fireman helped his family endure a medical crisis of their own.
Nearly three years ago, when his daughter’s head began swelling and the family struggled to determine the source of her medical condition, Curran told friends not to call so he and his wife could cope privately.
Still, Kenny called — offering advice on doctors, providing references, searching for medical advice to help them through their ordeal, which ultimately had a happy ending.
“But Kenny didn’t call just once,” O’Donnell said. “In true Kenny Phelan fashion, he called five or six times.”
“My wife, to this day, regards Kenny as an angel,” he said.
When he was transferred to Engine Co. 217 following his promotion to lieutenant, “Kenny had some very big shoes to fill,” his colleague, firefighter Richard Brady, said. Phelan was replacing a much beloved officer who was forced by a medical condition to leave the force.
“He did not let us down,” Brady said. “At 217, Phelan was no longer a fireman. He was a leader of men.”
His position at Engine 217 also had a special significance since Phelan’s father — himself an FDNY veteran — had served there for many years.
“He knew how proud that would make his dad, knowing his son was a lieutenant in his beloved Engine 217,” Curran said.
At the conclusion of his service, Phelan’s four sisters and one brother offered their memories collectively as a family.
“He started out by being the first baby baptized in this parish,” his sister Marian said. “He ended his life being immortalized in world history.”
Recognizing that her brother would prefer to be immortalized in his children’s lives, she asked family and friends to submit pages with photographs and stories to form a memory scrapbook of his life.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.