PAWTUCKET - Every inch of Frank M. Sylvester’s home is a memory.
Sure, there are the awards and proclamations on the walls, celebrating his 50-plus years in fire departments across the region. But it’s the little things, the minutiae, that seem to bring out the greatest joy in the 85-year-old former chief of the Lime Rock Fire Department.
Take, for example, a single white piece of paper. To the untrained eye, it looks almost like a tax form, with various grids and boxes and check marks and signatures all over it. But upon closer inspection, you’ll realize it’s the summary of his security detail for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s family retreat to Kennebunkport, Maine.
“We became pretty friendly on a personal level,” Sylvester recalls of his interactions with Bush and his wife Barbara over two summers in 1981 and 1982 while he was a chief in the United States Coast Guard. “You’d never know that’s the vice president and his wife. You’d think they’re regular beachcombers up there.”
With a laugh preceding it, Sylvester recalls a yarn from nearly 40 years ago, which he recalls as though it were 40 minutes ago.
“He was fishing one day on his boat and he calls me on the radio and says ‘How large is the security zone?’ I said, ‘At least a mile.’ He asked to cut it down, he said ‘I think the fish are paying attention to the security zone, they’re not biting!’” he says with a deep laugh. “They’re just regular people. I’m not a politician, I’m just a regular guy, but it’s people like that I think the world of.”
Sylvester, 85, resides at his Gates Street home on Pawtucket’s east side with his wife Estelle. The couple, together for 68 years, have three adult daughters – Gale, Donna and Sandra – and two granddaughters.
“It’s been a good career for me,” Sylvester says, as he grabs a seat in his basement – the walls lined with myriad plaques, commendations and awards celebrating his decades of service in both the military and fire profession.
“I came from nothing,” he said as he recalled his upbringing.
Young Frank was only nine months old when his father was killed – a memory that still brings tears to his eyes, having never truly gotten to know the man who brought him into the world.
After only making it to the eighth grade in his initial education, Sylvester found himself toiling in odd jobs during his teenage years. At 18, though, Sylvester decided to join the U.S. Army, calling it “the best thing I ever did … I went through hell, but it was worth it.”
The horrors of war
But before he was deployed to the Pacific during the Korean War, Sylvester had to endure some devastating losses over the span of just a few months in 1953 while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Sylvester was the only one out of 21 soldiers to survive after an accident during routine training at Smith’s Lake in September 1953. During exercises on a pontoon bridge, Sylvester realized that the small craft holding the entire squad, fully equipped in heavy gear, would not be able to hold every man.
“I said ‘That’s gonna sink!’ … I refused to get in,” Sylvester recalled.
Sure enough, the boat capsized and 20 soldiers drowned in the lake. Sylvester struggled to find the words as he recalled the horror of removing bodies tangled together.
“That was a tragedy,” he said solemnly. “I’ll never, never forget. Somebody up there liked me. Maybe it was my dad watching me.”
Two months later, Sylvester would again witness terrible tragedy and loss, as 16 soldiers were killed when an airplane lost its engine and sliced through the men who had just parachuted out as part of a training maneuver.
“The guys were cut to pieces, it just blew up and crashed,” Sylvester said.
Serving the citizens (and celebrities) of Pawtucket
After serving the nation as a member of the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Sylvester returned home to Rhode Island and eventually found permanent work with the Pawtucket Fire Department. His first day on the job in the career that would carry him to retirement was on Thanksgiving Day in 1966 at the Columbus Avenue Fire Station.
While Sylvester has battled more blazes than he can recall and has been honored countless times for his heroism in the field, he also has his share of stories of meeting celebrities during his early years among Pawtucket’s bravest.
He remembers a tour bus pulling up to the fire station in 1969, as the driver needed directions to the hotel on George Street – then a Howard Johnson’s. The first person off the bus was none other than jazz icon and American music legend Louis Armstrong.
“We invited him into the fire station and everybody’s getting autographs,” Sylvester said. “He said he’d send the bus to the hotel but he wanted to stay with ‘the cats.’ We had him stay the weekend and people stayed in the kitchen and took pictures with him. We had him sign one of the pillowcases in the lieutenant’s room!”
Then there was the time when the Boston Pops Orchestra was set to play a show at neighboring McCoy Stadium. Sylvester and the firefighters provided a ride for conductor Arthur Fiedler into the ballpark on the back of a fire truck. Fiedler was even named honorary chief for the night.
Working in the shadow of a baseball stadium also provided Sylvester the chance to meet plenty of the future superstars of the sport, from Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Dave Stapleton – “I set him up with his (future) wife,” Sylvester recalls.
“They all went up to the bigs, but they all came through the Columbus Avenue fire station,” he said. “You make friends with a lot of people there.”
Following his four years at the Columbus Avenue station, Sylvester was assigned to Rescue 1 – then Pawtucket’s only rescue – for 14 years. He said he made more than 5,000 emergency runs, day or night, saying he had no time to sleep while working a 72-hour week. After that, he became lieutenant at the Smithfield Avenue fire station until his retirement from Pawtucket in 1988.
Meeting a future President
Realizing retirement may not be all its cracked up to be, Sylvester – through his connections in the U.S. Coast Guard – was hired as a port security specialist to check the cargo coming into Newport.
One of the yachts he was assigned to? The “Trump Princess,” an 86-meter, multi-million-dollar yacht owned by then-real estate tycoon and current President Donald J. Trump.
Sylvester, though, was less than impressed with the then 42-year-old property magnate and future leader of the free world.
“I saw him for a short period. He wasn’t too pleasant. He was upset that I was taking his limo off the boat and he didn’t want anyone to know he was in. He ordered me to put the car back on the boat,” Sylvester said. What struck him as curious about Trump’s request for privacy, though, was that the yacht had the words “Trump Princess” splashed across its sides in large gold lettering.
“I’m a man’s man. I’m going to do my job.”
After Newport, Sylvester got a job with the United States government in New London, Conn., but quit after a few months because he couldn’t stand the lengthy commute. That was when he put his name in for the open position of chief of the Lime Rock Fire Department in Lincoln.
“I was told I didn’t have a shot at the chief’s job,” he said. “But it was a 3-2 vote from the commission to hire me.”
Upon arriving in Lime Rock in the late 1980s, Sylvester was not met with enthusiasm. But it was his return to his military roots as a self-proclaimed “strict military person” that led to the rank-and-file receiving him with respect. Eventually, that respect culminated in the staff of the Lime Rock Fire Department petitioning the town to have the renovated state-of-the-art station named in his honor.
“I hired and trained almost all of them,” he said. “They are the greatest bunch of guys.”
He retired from the department in 2016 having also served as president of the New England Fire Chiefs and Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Associations and also was the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal under former Gov. Donald Carcieri in 2007 and 2008, during which he oversaw the rewriting of the state’s fire code in the aftermath of the 2003 Station nightclub fire.
“I promised it would never happen again and the new laws would be business-friendly but put public safety first,” he said of the rewritten code.
As he looks around his basement and picks up each plaque, he recalls the memory attached to it. There’s a 1980 medal of heroism for rescuing a woman from a fire on Brewster Street. Close to that is a 1974 medal of heroism for pulling a woman from under a table during a fire in Pawtucket. Inside a file is countless commendations from elected officials including mayors, state representatives and senators, and members of Congress.
Struggling to properly summarize his career, Sylvester eventually composes himself and finds the words.
“I can’t complain,” he says. “I had a great career. I gave it 100 percent.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette