At the age of 91, retired FDNY Firefighter James Tempro noted humbly that he still enjoys helping the Department in any way that he can.
“Working in this Department I think has added to my longevity because we’re tough,” he said jokingly. “I’m happy to be here and continue to help the Department.”
Tempro, a U.S. Air Force veteran, spent 32 years serving as one of New York’s Bravest where he helped to protect life and property at Engine 217 in Brooklyn. He is well-known and respected throughout the Department for his dedication, activism and bravery. He’s also a longtime leader in the FDNY Vulcan Society, an affinity organization of black Firefighters, EMS members, Fire Protection Inspectors and civilians.
“My brothers and sisters in the Vulcan Society are always doing great things in the community and they help us move forward and upward, so it’s been an honor working with them all these years,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in the fire service also because we were helping the city and it was a time when I met so many great people. In the firehouse, you make so many lifelong friends and raise your kids together and I always valued all of that.”
During his career, he also dedicated many hours helping to educate the next generation of members about his career and why it’s rewarding. He has also inspired many Firefighters to study and train extensively to succeed at the job. This group includes his son Christopher, who retired as an FDNY Supervising Fire Marshal in 2002.
In Tempro’s post retirement years, when he talks to new members and Firefighter Candidates, his message is still the same: Be ready to learn, serve and make a difference.
“I came from the service where we wanted to help our country and coming to the fire department was similar because we’re here to help our city,” he said. “When you work here, you work with so many different people and build friendships and I think it’s important that the younger generation knows that this is important work and it’s a life-changing career. We’re here to help the city and one another.”
And on Sept. 8, he received a phone call that was not only meaningful to him, his family and his legacy, it was also part of changing the course of history in the FDNY.
Him and his wife of 66 years, Beverly, were watching the evening news like usual when FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro called to inform him that the Department was permanently renaming the James Gordon Bennett Medal to the Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci, Jr. Medal. Chief Ganci was the highest ranking uniformed FDNY member killed on September 11, 2001.
“I picked up the phone and Commissioner Nigro told me the great news and I was elated. I think very highly of the Commissioner, he’s a good friend and I think he took a wonderful stance with this change,” Tempro said. “I think it’s important that the medal now honors one of our own in the FDNY and that it honors a 9/11 hero.”
In 1969, Tempro was feted with the medal, which is the highest honor awarded to a Firefighter or Fire Officer at FDNY Medal Day each year. He saved a child from a Brooklyn fire a year earlier and the heroic act enabled him to become the first black recipient of the top honor. However, after learning that Bennett expressed publicly numerous times that he was pro-slavery, he believed the name of the medal didn’t reflect the mission and values of the Department.
“After doing some research on Gordon Bennett, I felt obligated as a black man to speak out about this because I felt that the Department using this medal as its highest one and having it as a tribute to a person who wanted to keep people enslaved was wrong,” he explained. “I had to speak up about it. My colleagues in the fire service supported me as well and it’s something that I needed to do and I’m glad it has been changed.”
Read more about this historical renaming here.
Learn more about the FDNY Vulcan Society and other FDNY Affinity Organizations here.