MILLVILLE - Even at the young age of 11, John J. Mullaly knew a career in the fire service was probably inevitable.
His father, John J. Mullaly Sr., was a Millville firefighter, and his grandfather, John H. Mullaly, served on the department from 1925 to the 1940's, many of those years as fire chief.
But it was his grandfather's death in 1957 that became a defining moment for the younger Mullaly. On the day of the funeral, he remembers a sea of firefighters — hundreds of them — standing solemnly near the casket to pay tribute to a man who had spent his life in one of the world's most dangerous professions.
Mullaly realized right then and there that the fire service was a true brotherhood and that he wanted to be part of that in a big way. Six years later, at the age of 16, John Mullaly became a junior firefighter.
"That was a powerful moment for someone so young and it made a big impression on me," says Mullaly, who retired from the fire department on Sept. 10 after a 48-year career, 28 of those as the department's chief.
The name Mullaly is synonymous with the Millville Fire Department. There has always been a Mullaly in the department and there likely always will be. It's an Irish family tradition that hasn't stopped with Chief Mullaly's retirement at the age of 64.
Not even close.
His two brothers, Joseph and Michael, were Millville firefighters during the 1960s and 1980s; his two sons, Brian and Paul, are currently Millville firefighters, and his 17-year-old grandson, Alex, just became a junior firefighter, making him a fifth-generation Mullaly fireman. Also, Mullaly's son-in-law, Joe Vinnico, is a Providence firefighter.
"I guess you can say that firefighting is in the Mullaly blood," says Mullaly, who was born and raised in Millville.
As a lot of Millville kids did back then, Mullaly attended his first eight grades at the former Longfellow Elementary School in town. He then attended St. Mary's Central Catholic High School in Milford. He would later enroll at Quinsigamond Community College to study fire science, and then at Johnson & Wales University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in business management. He rounded out his education at the University of Massachusetts, taking continuing education courses in management.
Three years after he joined the Millville Fire Department as a junior firefighter in 1963, Mullaly was in Germany, serving a four-year stint as a member of the United States Army.
He became an on-call firefighter with the Millville department in 1969, the same year he was honorably discharged from the service. At that time, the town's fire station was at the Town Hall, where one truck would be parked. The department's other truck was usually parked in one of the firefighter's yards.
"In those days, we used to get paid for fighting brush fires," Mullaly said.
Two years later, in 1971, the town opened what is now the current fire station on Main Street, which was built for $32,000 and funded at no cost to the taxpayers. It was Mullaly, the late John F. Dean Sr. and a handful of others who went out and sought donations from the community to build the station.
The fire chief at the time the station opened was Mike Hogan, who would retire shortly after. Taking his place was the late Fire Chief John J. Sitnick, who Mullaly would succeed in 1983 after having made his way through the ranks as lieutenant in 1978, captain in 1979, and then deputy chief later that same year.
In his years as chief, Mullaly says he is most proud of his efforts to start the department's ambulance service in 1987, and to bring on two full-time positions to the 22-member, mostly on-call department.
In the mid-1990s, Mullaly was also a member of Massachusetts Fire District 7, which comprises Millville, Blackstone, Uxbridge and several other Worcester County towns. At the time, he was chairman of a training committee that was working to develop a new firefighter training program according to national standards. That program would later end up becoming a statewide model used by the Massachusetts Fire Academy.
But what Mullaly was passionate about most was the safety of his men. Fifty years ago there were a lot more fires and Mullaly was always making sure his men had the latest in firefighter equipment and technology to not only keep them safe but the community safe as well.
"My motto all these years has been that everyone goes home at the end of the day," he said.
Mullaly says he is amazed at how firefighting technology has changed in the 48 years he's been a firefighter.
"Back in the day we used to wear rubber boots and our helmets were plastic," he chuckles.
Now, equipment has gotten lighter and better. Heavy compressed air bottles are 20 to 30 pounds lighter than they used to be. Thermal imaging cameras can help find hot spots in walls.
Fire prevention has also changed - and for the better, he says.
"The fires in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were constant, but they have slowed down," he explained. "The fire service is always changing and fire prevention has come a long way. The advent of smoke detectors, better fire and building codes, and more education, have all contributed to better fire safety."
Mullaly says making the decision to retire was bittersweet, but he knew in his heart that this year was the time to finally do it.
"My wife, Kathleen, and I have been talking about it off and on for a few years. But you know when it's time," he said. "I had a great career and now it's time to do some new things."
The 64-year-old Mullaly says he plans to spend a lot of time with his grandchildren and still stay active in the community.
"It's been a good ride," he says. "The fire service is an honorable profession with some of the best people you will ever meet. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to do what I did for so long."