CENTRAL FALLS — When Battalion Chief Keith Sullivan received the call at approximately 4 a.m., Tuesday, he walked to the dormitory area of the Central Falls Fire Department and announced to several colleagues their beloved chief — Rene R. Coutu — had died at the age of 60.
“Everybody got up, and one firefighter immediately went outside and lowered the (American) flag to half-staff,” Sullivan said sadly. “The others just walked around. It actually was very quiet.”
According to Deputy Chief Gerry Dion, Coutu — a laid-back sort whose smile and personality always made others feel special — succumbed peacefully to cancer at Miriam Hospital as his family surrounded him.
Coutu apparently had re-entered the hospital due to complications on Dec. 2, 25 years to the day he took over the reins at CFFD. In fact, his colleagues had been planning a 25th anniversary fete to honor the chief they adored on Saturday, Jan. 8 at the Lusitania Club in Cumberland.
“We knew we could be expecting a call; when I told the guys, their reaction was like everyone else's — we all lost a family member,” Sullivan stated. “Everyone adored him, as his whole demeanor was always upbeat and positive. He was always concerned with everyone else's families, the well-being of his men, and his door was open whenever you needed him.
“If you had a personal issue, you could sit down and talk with him just like he was another firefighter in the truck,” he added. “He was one of the guys, which is what he always wanted to be … As a firefighter, he was extremely knowledgeable. He thought progressively, and tried to move the department forward, despite any of the economic issues, in the best way he could.”
Sullivan discovered through Dion — and a Miriam nurse — that Coutu, a huge sports fan no matter the level, had watched the New England Patriots-New York Jets game on Monday Night Football.
“I'm sure (the Patriots' victory) made Rene very happy,” Sullivan smiled. “The mood in here is somber, and the offerings of support we've received here (Tuesday) have been endless. We've had visits from a lot of retirees, as they were looking for support. I mean, they're our family, too. We just talked about Rene. It was emotional.”
Sullivan called their leader “a firefighter's firefighter, and I've heard that from guys inside and outside the department.
“Rene was in his office just a few weeks ago,” he continued. “He came in for a couple of hours, and was always in contact with the deputy chief (Dion). I know he had the utmost respect from fire departments around the state. Everyone liked him, and everyone respected him because of the way he was — always friendly, always caring.”
Stated Police Chief Col. Joseph Moran: “I've lived in this city my whole life, and Rene has always been a class act, especially as our fire chief. He's always been a gentleman, and that's the best definition anyone can have for a man.
“We at the police station next door, everyone is truly saddened by his passing, and he's going to be sorely missed. I've been on this department for 27 years, and the chief for six, so we worked side by side for a long, long time. Like I said, he's the consummate gentleman, and we send our condolences to his family.”
Lime Rock Fire District Chief Frank Sylvester explained he had known Coutu since his childhood days, as he and Coutu's dad, former Central Falls Fire Chief Robert A. Coutu, at times worked together.
“His first love was his family, and his second love the fire department in Central Falls,” he noted. “If you look up the word 'gentleman' in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Rene Coutu. He was just that kind of person — a very kind guy, low-key, and never got excited. He treated everybody the way they wanted to be treated themselves.
“I got a phone call from retired Pawtucket Fire Chief Tim McLaughlin (Monday night), and he told me (Rene) may not have long, and my response was shock,” he continued. “I was more than shocked when I found out (Tuesday) morning he had passed.”
Coutu, who after his father's death had been chosen the next chief, had been a Central Falls firefighter since 1971, and Sullivan called him a visionary leader who was highly respected by all. Coutu also served as a member of the Rhode Island Fire Board of Appeals for over 20 years, and as board chairman for the past four-plus years.
“Whenever we went before him, he always came up with a reasonable decision regarding fire codes,” Sylvester indicated. “He served in that latter capacity right up until his death. Actually, he did a terrific job — very fair and open. He always put himself in the other guy's shoes.
“You know, Gov. Edward DiPrete appointed him to that board, so — obviously — the governor knew what he was doing. I also know he served as Secretary of the Rhode Island Association of Fire Chiefs. Rene loved anything to do with fire service, and I think he was born with it. Look at his dad.
“He told me all the time how proud he was to be selected, and to take over where his father left off. He was truly proud. I knew his dad, and he was outstanding. Bob Coutu was incredible … Rene was one-of-a-kind. His demeanor, his personality, he was so laid-back. Everybody liked him.
“I knew he had cancer, but we thought he had beaten it seven or eight months ago,” he added. “I had been talking to him, and asked how he was doing. He responded with that classic smile, saying he felt alright. The man never complained — never. That's just the kind of guy he was.
“He was a friend of mine, an outstanding man. This is a tragedy, and I'll miss him greatly. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Coutu is survived by his wife of 33 years, Denise; his two daughters, Lisanne Landi and Laura Young; a brother, Denis; and three sisters, Paulette Larocque, Michelle Lavergne and Lisa Williams.
His wake will be held on Friday (4-8 p.m.) at Keefe Funeral Home, 5 Higginson Ave., Lincoln. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Holy Spirit Parish (the former St. Matthew's Church) on Dexter Street at 9:30 a.m., Saturday.
Sullivan indicated an Honor Guard consisting of CFFD firefighters and others will march from the funeral home to Holy Spirit Parish beginning at 7:30 a.m., Saturday.