On a Sunday morning in 1959, Connie Schoenrock was pulling into her driveway after returning from church in her Secaucus town of New Jersey, when husband George, whom she had left their toddler son with, came running out of the house.
“Don’t park the car, I’m getting in,” he told her.
Asked where he was going, he replied: ”The firehouse. Didn’t I ever tell you I wanted to be a fireman?”
The truth is he had not. And until then, she had no idea it was going to be the story of his life.
For six decades after that, George Robert Schoenrock would run to every fire in Secaucus, even those outside the town that required the help of his fire department.
AN AVOCATION THAT BECAME A VOCATION
PSE&G, the New Jersey power and gas utility that employed George for 44 years, said he became a volunteer fireman at the urging of friends “because he liked the idea of the challenge”.
“His avocation has helped shape his vocation,” it said in a 1982 internal publication that had George on the cover.
While he was eager to be a firefighter, it was not until 1962 that George was certified as a regular volunteer at the Secaucus Fire Department — some two years after he signed up. This was despite his graduating course at the Jersey City State College being “Fire Science”. Such was the way things were done in the old days: to become a firefighter, one had to prove himself. George did. He was Civil Defense auxiliary fireman first, then volunteer and rose through the ranks to become department chief. Not once, but thrice. Since the Secaucus Fire Department was established in 1891, no one else had been elected to the post three times.
But George wasn’t just fire chief. He was involved with so many firemen organizations and held so many positions in them that it was hard to imagine how he found time to raise five children (which include a now-deceased daughter) with Connie, his wife of 62 years. Of the multiple responsibilities he assumed, he really cherished those that allowed him to teach about fire prevention. His position as chief instructor and director of the North Jersey Volunteer Firemen’s Association Training Center gave him an overarching role for this task.
In Secaucus, George started the fire prevention program in its schools, teaching children the crucial “Stop, Drop and Roll” drill to minimize injuries in a blaze. He also got the kids involved in fun activities like drawing posters for the town’s annual fire prevention contest. It became one of the high points of his life, judging the winners of that contest and presenting them with certificates and prizes like smoke detectors. George also taught fire prevention for Secaucus businesses. In fact, he’d go to any home or place to talk about how to avoid a fire — or get out safely, if one began.
For his deeds, he was awarded “Citizen of the Year” for 2011-2012 by the Secaucus chapter of UNICO National, the service organization of Italian Americans. Established in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1922, Unico is the largest Italian-American body engaged in charitable works and in support of higher education and patriotic deeds. Prior to that, PSE&G honored him with a 1997 Award of Valor (the company’s highest) for rushing into a burning house across the street from his office and putting out the fire there. In 1977, legendary brewer Schlitz presented him with the NJ State Firefighter of the Year award.
A FIREFIGHTER TILL THE END
Even after he had ceased being Fire Chief for years, George carried the responsibility in his heart, never missing an event at the fire department or, for the matter, the town.
“He was a firefighter till the end,” said Secaucus Mayor Mike Gonnelli. “Chief Schoenrock went to every firefighter meeting. He was at every council meeting. He did not miss one.”
“I don’t think anybody could ever say one bad word about him,” said Gonnelli, who has known George since 1974, and was a fireman himself before becoming mayor.
Carl Leppin, who became Secaucus fire chief in 2018, said George had been a life-long mentor.
“When it comes to work and dedication — he’s truly all the way there with the department, the community and his family,” said Leppin, who had known George since coming on the job in 1996.
“He’s there for everything. He’s always around, he’s always there for calls, training, clean-ups and meetings. He slept and drank the fire department.”
Joseph Schoendorf, Leppin’s deputy, said George’s zest for the job belied his age.
“He was 84 but he was regularly coming to the firehouse, putting on gear, jumping on the fire rigs and responding to the calls with all of us,” said Schoendorf.
Connie remembers George turning up there even when he wasn’t well.
“I would tell him: Don’t go. They are not going to kick you out of the firehouse if you don’t go,” she recalls telling him.
“He’d say: No, I’ll just go and sign in. And before you know, he is on the rig going to a fire. It was a very, very big part of his life.”
She didn’t know how much George relished fighting fires — until he told her in their driveway that Sunday morning in 1959.
“I’d known him since 1955 and he never once mentioned before that he wanted to become a fireman,” said Connie, who moved to Secaucus with George a year after they had lived in neighboring Rutherford after their marriage in 1958.
A SECAUCUS SON FOR LIFE
Secaucus had always been a part of George’s life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, he was brought to the New Jersey town as a six-month-old infant after the untimely death of his mother Edna left him in the hands of guardian parents and Secaucus residents, Christopher and Minnie Barter.
George attended grammar school at Secaucus’ Huber Street and became Boy Scout leader of the city’s “Troop 22” and “Sea Explorers Troop Falcon 35”.
After junior high school in Lyndhurst, and high school and college in Jersey City, he worked for a while at the Western Electric Company in Kearny as a wiring inspector.
In 1955, he joined PSE&G, laying cables underground for the utility. He became its safety officer, after nearly getting killed on the job.
“He would go down the manhole,” Connie recalled. “And he got electrocuted when he was helping somebody else. He took off his glove and his wrist hit the wire. He was knocked unconscious and they had to get a rope and pull him out of there. He was in the hospital for a day or two. And that’s why they probably made him a safety conductor; because he knew first hand what not to do.”
SUPERHERO TO THE BLAZE
But Connie also has bright memories of a young George bolting out of the door like a superhero each time there was a blaze, to the awe of the entire neighborhood.
“At that time the whistle would go off, and all the neighbors would go to their window to look at George and see him flying out of the house — like some sort of a superhero on a rescue mission,” she recalls with a laugh. “Down and up the street, they would all come up to their windows.”
Well, it was the 1960s. There was no Facebook, Twitter or 24/7 cable TV. A fire siren then was the equivalent of a thousand Instagram pings. And George was Secaucus’ own super-suited crusader, ever-ready to hose that fire down.
The Hudson Reporter in an April 2011 feature of George described him as someone on call 24/7, 365 days of the year. What he got as a volunteer firefighter was a small monthly stipend and a yearly clothing allowance, it said. But what he put into the job was something that couldn’t be measured in price.
“He receives all kinds of calls at all times of the day and night, from small to large emergencies,” The Hudson Reporter said in a story that ran under the headline “FIRE IS NO MATCH FOR THIS CHIEF!”.
George recalls in that story that his toughest blaze was at the American Can Company on New County Road in Secaucus in 1962. It took a week to put out.
Midway of his interview with The Hudson Reporter, George was interrupted by a call about a fire at a kitchen in Secaucus. In true first responder’s style, he paused the conversation, went to put out the blaze, and returned to continue the interview.
From that story, we also learned about other interesting aspects of George’s life when he wasn’t firefighting.
We learned that he loved gardening; that he walked four miles a day for exercise; that he had traveled to England, Italy, Austria, France, and the Netherlands; that he liked country music by Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, and Merle Haggard; and that the instrument he played at parties was the kazoo.
The Hudson Reporter also remarked about George’s sense of humor when he spoke of Connie, especially how he “rescued” her from her Wallington town of New Jersey by marrying her.
A PONTIAC AND A BIG WHITE DOG
Connie acknowledges that witty side of her husband. She particularly chuckles at how George had many in their town fooled when he drove about in his turquoise blue, white topped 1957 Pontiac, with a big furry white dog sticking halfway out the back window. When he stopped at the light, the dog would sometimes bark. To anyone, it was a picture of a man who couldn’t be parted from his beloved pooch. The truth is, it wasn’t. It was a stuffed dog with a mechanical bark, and it stayed in the back seat when George went into the house.
“He found that dog at a garage sale and he put it in the back of the car. With its head out of the window, hair blowing and perfectly-timed bark, it looked real. Do you know how many people thought that dog was real?” Connie recalled amusedly.
George didn’t have a name for his mechanical mutt. But if he did, he’d have probably called it “Gus”, says daughter Kim.
“My Dad called all creatures Gus,” she adds, and that applied to the guinea pigs, white mice and cats reared by the family.
The faux pooch in the backseat was proof of the quirky humor Chief Schoenrock sometimes displayed. The car, though, was something else. If there was something he loved as much as Connie, the kids and firefighting, it had to be that Pontiac.
“It was the first new car he ever bought, before we got married,” Connie recalls.
“We drove to Wisconsin, looked at the car, and had it shipped back on a carriage. We used the car as our honeymoon car as well as we didn’t have limousines then. George also belonged to the Pontiac club and drove that car to every auto show they had.”
WEDDED TO THE FIREHOUSE, TILL THE END
Indeed, George was full of life. Even toward the end, when he was terminally ill, he acted as though everything was fine.
It was a difficult time for Connie as she had to keep his illness mostly to herself.
“He had bladder cancer but he convinced me to keep it a secret,” she said.
“He went through chemos, surgeries but the cancer just spread. He wouldn’t let me tell anybody, so in the end it came very much as a shock to everybody.”
She wasn’t sure whether it was because George didn’t want any sympathy or because he feared being taken away from the other thing he was wedded to — his firehouse.
“I told him: ‘Sooner or later, they’re going to suspect something because your work is slowing down’. And some of the firefighters in his company thought he was slowing a little but they thought it was age, not anything more.”
Schoendorf was one of those who sensed something was different.
“Obviously there were moments in his last six months when he was slowing down a little,” the deputy fire chief said. “But there were never really any signs that he was sick or anything like that. He just kept showing up. The ‘old faithful’, that’s what I called him.”
Mayor Gonnelli also rues not witnessing any frailty in George until it was too late. “I noticed he kind of lost weight. There was some indication of that. But everyday that I saw him, I saluted him and he saluted me back.”
George Robert Schoenrock passed away in hospital on Halloween 2020.
Connie said: “He did not suffer. He was not uncomfortable. And he went as peacefully as anybody could. And we let him go because we loved him.”
Secaucus salutes its favorite firefighting son, and wishes him eternal peace.
George Robert Schoenrock (August 8, 1936 – October 31, 2020)
- As told to Barani Krishnan, Founder & Americas Editor