Story by Sara Paul
It was a sunny July morning in 1964 and Frank Fotino was preparing for his afternoon wedding, just as any other groom-to-be. About four hours before his nuptials, the young firefighter was battling a serious blaze at the Surfwood Inn in Bellvale, NY.
“We were there at the start of the fire at about 8 a.m. By noon, my Dad said we had better go. My wedding was at 2 o’clock,” said Fotino, now a 59-year Excelsior Fire Company member who joined the Excelsiors in 1959 and, after going through the ranks as first and second lieutenant and then captain, became chief in 1975.
Luckily the young lad in love did not keep Diane, his bride-to-be, waiting, as the two were happily married at St. Stephen’s RC Church in its then South St. location.
Besides being a proud father, grandfather, and still a volunteer fireman, Frank is also known for two major Warwick Fire Department (WFD) accomplishments: helping the WFD become a fire district in 1978, as it was formerly owned and controlled by the Village of Warwick, and his involvement in the design and the successful positive vote to build the new Station 1, located on Church St. Ext. This enabled the Goodwill Hook and Ladder Company and the Excelsior Hose Company to move from their cramped quarters on Main St. and High St.
Fotino also credits Assistant Chiefs John Batz and Peter O’Prandy, Firefighters Brian Wood and the late Roger Miller, and the members of the WFD who assisted in the efforts.
When the Warwick Fire District was formed, the Town and Village boards selected five commissioners: Cal Gilbert, Frank Fotino, Bill Bryant, Dick O’Neill, and John Schlagel, with Ed Cumminsky as treasurer. Fotino served as the secretary during a portion of the more than two decades he was commissioner. He is also past president of the Orange County Fire Chief Association and the Orange County Advisory Board, and past president of District 6 Past Chiefs Association.
Fotino says he is excited for the Excelsior Hose Co., Warwick’s first fire company, and for the Warwick Fire Department’s 150 years of serving the residents of the Warwick Fire District as volunteers. The celebration, which began in Jan., will culminate in Dec. and will feature a Sept. 2019 parade to celebrate the 150th anniversary.
Born in Warwick in 1941, Frank Joseph Fotino and his sister, Frances, were the first set of twins to be born in St. Anthony’s Hospital in its current Grand St. location. His parents, Joseph and Jen, moved to Warwick from Peekskill, NY in 1939.
Upon moving to Warwick, Joseph joined the Excelsior Hose Co. and was the manager of the Grand Union in Warwick, the current site of CVS on Main St. His mother retired from the Warwick Savings Bank, now Sterling National Bank on Oakland Ave.
Frank attended the High St. School, which burned down. So many years later, Frank recalls when his dad came home in 1951 and hung up his fire coat.
“I smelled the smoke on him and he told me, ‘your school burned down.’ It was such a shock,” remembers Frank, who continued on to Hamilton Ave., then Park Ave., which was the high school at that time. His graduation in 1959 marked the first class to graduate from the new Warwick Valley High School.
With his father as Excelsior chief, from 1957 to 1959, young Frank knew his calling from a young age.
“I really enjoyed it and I was accepted there. When it was time to join, there was no doubt in my mind that this was what I was meant to do,” comments Frank, who frequently visited with his dad in the firehouse on High St., now home to Judge Barlet’s office.
“It’s just in my blood I guess,” says the current WFD driver, who will complete 60 years of active service this June 2019. Frank’s father, Joe, who was a past chief, had 51 years of service in the department. Notably, the two men combined have over 111 years of service, as of 2019.
Attending Delhi for a year, Frank was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving from 1961 to 1963. He was stationed in Livingston, NJ as a special 4th class missile launcher crewman, serving two years active duty before returning to Warwick.
Frank worked various jobs, most predominantly at the Lehigh and Hudson River Railway, and in 1972 he joined the Village of Warwick Department of Public Works. He retired as Superintendent of the Public Works Department on Dec. 30, 1998.
Fotino vividly remembers his first major fire as chief in 1975. It was at Christ Episcopal Church on South St. in the Village of Warwick in their social hall.
“I just remember thinking, ‘we are not gonna lose this church,’ and we sure didn’t,” remembers Frank, commending the firemen on “a great job.”
Other memories include his dad missing dinner when he was battling a blaze, a lifestyle that would be passed down to Frank.
“It’s the same with me. It can be dinner time or the middle of the night. You just react automatically and that’s your job as a volunteer. You signed up to do it and you do it. It’s your job,” affirms Fotino.
“It is a very gratifying feeling to be a member of a volunteer organization such as the fire department. You meet some wonderful, dedicated men and women who serve the community in which you live,” he said.
Years after their wedding, a calm fireman’s wife, Diane, would casually ask her sooty husband not why he was late to dinner, but instead, why he was sporting some seriously charred eyelashes and eyebrows.
He explained, “It was a long night; the coldest fire I had ever been at. It was 18 below and the thermometer on the house read 68 degrees,” said Fotino of the 1965 house fire on the corner of Ackerman Rd. and Kings Hwy.
According to Fotino, the longest-lasting fire during his time in the department was at the lumber yard on Kings Hwy. and State School Rd. It took approximately 25 hours to extinguish and overhaul the alarm.
The family man acknowledges the impact of his career on those closest to him.
“It wasn’t easy for my wife, and with her help and her leadership, we have two successful children,” says Fotino of his Pine Island-raised bride, whom he met in eighth grade.
The couple have two children: Joseph, a retired New York City Police Department officer, and his wife, Amy, a registered nurse at St. Anthony’s Community Hospital, have four children: Andrew, Nick, Joey, and Sophia. Gia, a teacher in Warwick, and her husband, Rob Gravelle, a teacher at S.S. Seward Institute High School in Florida, NY, have a son, Grant.
On Frank’s off-time, he volunteered to coach Little League Baseball, Senior League Baseball, Pee Wee Football, and was a Hudson Valley High School football official for 25 years. He was a member of the crew that officiated the first Senior All-Star football game and the first Orange County football championship game. The crew was headed by Gerald Decatur and included Frank Lacalamita.
Frank travels anywhere and as much as he can, including favorite trips to Canada and especially the four trips to Italy with Diane and close friends, “enjoying every minute of it with fine wine, great food and a beautiful country.”
Travel may be a treat, but Frank always enjoys returning to his roots.
“Warwick is a great community and there is always something special going on here. We like to help people and have always been actively involved in the community,” he said.
With 60 years of service to the Warwick Fire Department, Fotino proudly proclaims, “I have never regretted saying to my father, ‘Yes, I want to join the Excelsior Hose Company and the Warwick Fire Department.’”