In the pages of an old notebook, a firefighter is remembered

  • Chief Jon Goldman stands by the area where two fallen firefighters will be honored with a plaque Saturday at the New Hampshire Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Concord.

  • Chief Jon Goldman stands at the New Hampshire Fallen Fighters Memorial in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sometimes, solving a mystery comes right from a Hollywood script, complete with a faded leather-bound notebook found in a musty old attic.

And that’s what we have here, with the firefighter who died long ago finally getting what he deserves. His name is Chester Brickett, and he’ll be honored Saturday at the New Hampshire Fallen Firefighters Memorial on Smokey Bear Blvd. in Concord.

Brickett, once the Winnisquam fire chief, suffered a heart attack while driving from a call in Laconia in 1954. He died on the way to Laconia Hospital. Coronary heart disease, the death certificate said.

Then, as far as a tribute was concerned, under the heading of died in the line of duty, nothing. Not a word.

Here’s where our detectives enter the story, a pair of men from Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid, based in Laconia. Jon Goldman, chief coordinator, and Kevin Nugent, the public information officer, had heard things about Brickett.

Something about a man who’d made a big impact in the firefighting business. Something about a man who led an entire volunteer department, back when volunteer departments formed a major core of a community.

But before your name can be added to that sacred tablet on the fire academy grounds, near a huge bell and crisply manicured landscape, the state fire marshal must have satisfactory documentation.

“I saw some snippets on Facebook,” Goldman, sitting in his office, told me recently. “I like history, and that’s what I started with.”

That’s not much, but Goldman bulldogged forward, which is appropriate, since he looks like a bulldog.

He’s an imposing figure, solid like the granite nameplate that greets visitors at the front of his desk. Stocky with a shaved head, he’s got a low center of gravity like a fullback, and his puffed right cheek tells you he chews. His spittoon, a cup, sits nearby on the floor, to his left.

He’s been in the dispatch business in New Hampshire for 22 years. He took the job in Laconia after seven years with the Derry Fire Department.

Goldman is the team leader with the Granite State Fire Service support team, which means he assists departments with line-of-duty deaths. He’ll help families understand government benefits and make funeral arrangements.

“I’m very familiar with the memorial in Concord,” Goldman says.

Meanwhile, down a narrow hallway, sits Nugent, at a circular command post that resembles the bridge on the Starship Enterprise. Computer screens and constant chatter equal a nerve center of life-saving assistance, with people like Nugent, John Beland and Lois Cilley handling calls every day of the year, about 26,000 in all.

Together, Goldman and Nugent formed an investigative team that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would have envied. Their work means that Brickett will now be honored along with Steven Bomba of Lincoln, who died in a traffic accident after attending the Police Academy graduation last year.

That accident got lots of headlines.

News of Brickett’s death got lost, however, during an era of poor record keeping and, of course, no internet.

Nugent, however, was in perfect position to crack this case wide open. He had been chief of the Winnisquam Fire Department before it merged with Belmont’s department in 2006.

“There was not much known, but I had seen something,” Nugent told me. “I inquired a few years ago but I didn’t find much.”

Then Goldman saw that Facebook post, the one that carried snippets of key anniversaries within New England’s fire rescue community.

“Jan. 14, 1954 – Six year fire chief Chester Brickett, age 51, returning from a call in Laconia, is stricken behind the wheel of fire engine and perishes.”

Goldman, relatively new to his post, drove to the Concord memorial, just to see if Brickett’s name was on it.

It wasn’t, and that started a chain reaction of research.

For example, Goldman found department logs, one of which, dated Jan. 1953, read, “Regular monthly meeting was held at Franklin Central Station with Chief Brickett presiding.”

Then he found one from Jan. 28, 1954, that read, “Secty instructed to write letter of sympathy to Mrs. Brickett.”

“It was circumstantial,” Goldman noted, “until Kevin found that book.”

That’s the worn leather-bound notebook we began our story with. It turns out that Nugent had collected some items from the old Winnisquam Fire Department before the building closed 11 years ago.

“I was given the opportunity to take memorabilia and records,” Nugent said. “I saved meeting notes, plaques, awards. I saved a book.”

The book, about an inch thick, was stuffed with hand-written notes, each page filled from top to bottom with script that took time to decipher.

Nugent took the time, spreading out several reading sessions, each a few hours long, for several days.

Finally, he found this entry: “This page to be kept in memory of our chief. Chester Brickett. Passed away at the wheel … in the line of duty. Jan. 14, 1954.

“I found it,” was Nugent’s email to Goldman.

From there, Goldman contacted state Fire Marshal William Degnan, who approved Brickett’s entry onto hallowed ground. He’ll be honored Saturday morning at 10.

“It was nice Kevin and Jon were able to find that documentation,” said Tom Green, chairman of the New Hampshire Firemen’s Association. “Even if someone finds a record, the fire marshal’s office needs to investigate to make sure it was in the line of duty. You can’t just put a name on it.”

In a strange twist, the father of a woman named Katherine Dawson, Jim Dodge, was close with Brickett, and she married Brickett’s grandson, since deceased. She’ll be at Saturday’s ceremony.

“Through my life as a young person I would hear my father tell the story of how Chief Brickett had died on a truck,” said Dawson, who lives in Tilton. “My father would throw in the part about a dalmatian, but I don’t know how true that was.”

Meanwhile, Goldman’s work isn’t done. Six years ago he lost one of his men, a firefighter named Harold Frey, who died from a heart attack after emerging from Littly Pond in Sandown during ice rescue training.

“You take some type of responsibility when these guys work for you,” Goldman said. “Since then, I’ve taken a larger interest in this stuff. To actually have it happen is great.”

Goldman says he’s trying to verify if two or three others firefighters who died deserve enshrinement on the Concord memorial. There are 87 names, including Brickett and Bomba, already inscribed there.

Somewhere, perhaps in a musty attic, there’s a faded leather-bound notebook that holds the answer.