CENTRAL FALLS — Minutes before the Central Falls Fire Department's Engine 2 arrived in front of the Holy Spirit Parish at approximately 9:30 a.m., Saturday — with Fire Chief Rene R. Coutu's American flag-draped casket laying on the hose bed — State Rep. Elizabeth “Betty” Crowley stood on the church steps, explaining exactly what he meant to her.
“Rene and I go back four decades; I came in as a part-time clerk at City Hall in 1968, and he came in as a firefighter in '71,” she stated. “I knew his father, Bob, who was the fire chief before Rene, and they were two terrific guys. I remember Bob's funeral, which was at Notre Dame Church, and the streets were packed then, just as they are now.
“Rene Coutu was all about compassion,” she added. “He always thought about his men. They were first in his life, other than his wife and children. I used to call him the 'Stick and Paste' guy. No matter how old the trucks were, he made them look brand new. He never got excited or upset about one of his truck's breaking down. He always found a way to get it on the road again to keep us all safe.”
When Coutu's pallbearers began moving his casket toward the church's front entrance, Crowley dabbed her eyes with a tissue. She wasn't alone.
Folks came out in droves to say “So long” and “We love you” to Coutu, a CFFD firefighter since 1971 and the department's beloved chief for the last 25 years, as of Dec. 2, not to mention a huge sports fan and avid jogger.
“There isn't a person here who didn't love Rene,” Crowley offered.
Nearby, Parks & Recreation Director Tony Tager and his wife, Joyce, discussed how they felt when they discovered Coutu – at the tender age of 60 – had lost his fight with prostate cancer in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day to some.
“I just couldn't believe it when I heard,” Tony said solemnly. “He's such a great guy, and so well-respected in the firefighting field throughout the State of Rhode Island, never mind the City of Central Falls.
“I'm very saddened by this,” he continued. “My wife works for the city now as the tax collector, and she worked with Rene at the station six years ago.”
Stated Joyce: “It was wonderful, and that's because Rene made it that way. He never said a bad word about anybody. It was just his respect and love for life, and his family, everyone he ever encountered. He was the very definition of 'people person.' He just loved people. Even when he had business to attend to at City Hall, he always stopped by every department, just to say 'Hi!' and ask how everyone was doing.
“He's one of the friendliest, kindest souls I've ever known.”
Vernia Carter, Channel One/Ralph J. Holden Community Center's Prevention Coordinator, mentioned Coutu's nurturing of the first-ever Junior Fire Academy, held last spring.
“What I really liked about it was Rene really encouraged the girls to take part, and he told them they could make (firefighting) a career if they chose to,” she noted. “And, every year, I would have youths that needed to attain skills for summer work programs. He would gladly take two of our students – those ages 14-16 – to answer phones or do some filing at his department.
“Every function we had, he'd be at the community center, backing it. The kids loved it when he showed up. I mean, being a fireman is every little kid's dream. Being the fire chief, that made his visits all the more special.”
A number of city and state dignitaries attended the Mass of Christian Resurrection, as Rev. Robert Perron referred to the service celebrating Coutu's stellar life.
They included Crowley; State Sen. Edward O'Neill of Lincoln; former Central Falls Mayors Carlos (“Chick”) Silva and Richard Bessette; current Mayor Charles Moreau; Lincoln Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond; city Police Chief Col. Joseph Moran and Maj. Kevin Guindon; and a bevy of firefighters from throughout the state and southeastern Massachusetts.
Perron served as the celebrant, with Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Joseph S. Haggar, also the Central Falls Fire Department's Chaplain, and St. Jude's Church Pastor Bernard C. Lavin acting as co-celebrants. While delivering the homily, Perron maintained he had attended his dear friend's wake Friday evening at Keefe Funeral Home in Lincoln, and a woman approached him, saying “Rene wanted you to do this.”
“I was very humbled by that,” he said. “We're here to honor a man who lived his days very well.”
He also mentioned some people at the wake had told him this death, at this time of year, was quite difficult.
“The fact is, Christ came at Christmas,” Perron said. “Rene was a man of the people, a person who liked to help others. He was always teaching. When I first met him, he wanted to teach me how to change the church.”
That drew laughter from the mammoth crowd inside the magnificent edifice.
“He knew within him that the business of life is us,” he added. “He gave you the energy and spirit to live your life better … I was told stories about him going into (blazing) buildings and saving people, and his love of people took care of him. That was Rene.”
Perron said he never met a man who delivered to him more hugs than Coutu.
“The fact is, you were better in Rene's presence than if you weren't,” he said.
His wife, Denise, spoke of how nice Rene was to her when they courted, how he would take her to dinner, open the car door, buy her roses. She mentioned that some women would think, after getting married, those kindnesses would end.
“Rene never stopped doing those things for me in the 33 years we were married,” she said. “He did whatever he could to make the girls (their daughters, Lisanne and Laura) and me feel special.”
One particular gift in which the family would partake: He would place 14 plastic candles in separate windows during the holidays, “each one had its own outlet,” she said, causing more chuckles from the congregation.
Every night when she returned home at night, she'd peer down the hill and see the Coutu house lit with the decorations.
“About two weeks ago, I came down the hill and the house was dark,” she said, weeping. “That's when I knew how tired and weak Rene was … I'm sure he's smiling down from heaven right now. Honey, I'll keep the lights on for you.”
His eldest daughter, Lisanne Landi, offered through tears how Coutu always made his family feel safe and loved.
“The words “I don't know,' 'I can't,' or 'I'm too busy' were not in his vocabulary,” she said. “He used to love singing, singing at church, and – without saying a word – he used to clean (snow) off our cars so we'd be safe. We're going to miss his hugs, the twinkle in his eyes, his strong presence. You're our angel now, Daddy. We love you so much!”
Stated his “baby,” Laura Young: “When I was little, I wanted to be just like my dad. Whenever I had a problem, he always knew how to fix it … I love you so much, Dad. I miss you already.”
Those comments created tears from his firefighting brethren and manyfriends.
As his pallbearers – including Battalion Chiefs John Garvey, Manuel Marques, Robert Bradley and Keith Sullivan, Capts. Arthur Parent and Michael Bessette and Lts. Kenneth Brousseau and David Donth – carried the casket outside the church, the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes & Drums corps played a dirge.
“His father, Bob, was the chief during my tenure, and he was a superb individual,” said former Mayor Bessette, who led the city from 1978-84. “Like father, like son. They were two outstanding men. They both were phenomenal firefighters and great leaders of men.”
Moreau stated Coutu brought class, style and kindness to the entire “Square Mile” city.
“No matter who you talk to – business owners, residents, whoever – Rene was an amazing individual,” he said. “If he told you that your business or home needed an expensive fire detection system, you felt good about it, and that's because he did so with such style and grace.
“He also was very well-respected. Wherever I went in the state, people would tell me Rene was one of the best and brightest fire chiefs not only in New England, but perhaps the country. He was always 'up,' always smiling.”
Noted ex-Mayor “Chick” Silva: “I appointed him after his father passed in 1985, and that was one of the best – if not the best – appointments I ever made. He was a great guy and a great friend. He had big shoes to fill, taking over his father's job as fire chief, but I know he made his father proud.
“He'll be sorely missed,” he added, choking back tears. “Good man.”
With that, Silva walked away to join the processional, one taking Chief Coutu past his fire station, then to his final resting place at Gates of Heaven Cemetery in East Providence.