The Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958 had a devastating impact on the community in which it took place. When Mike was a young boy, he watched his school go up in flames, and afterward, his parents told him never to think about it again. And he never did, that is, until he was training to be firefighter, after four years of volunteering. He was in a drill at the academy that focused on the proper use of ladders. The slides displayed during the demonstration were photos of the ladders used in the Our Lady of Angels fire. It was then that the memories came flooding back and he knew it was his destiny to be a firefighter.
“Back in the day, when your parents told you not to think about something, you knew it was important,” he says. “So, I never did. But when I saw those slides I had goose bumps on my arms the size of marbles.”
Once he discovered his destiny, he advanced through the ranks quickly. His positions included volunteer firefighter, full-time firefighter, lieutenant, fire inspector, captain, deputy fire chief, and then finally chief of the Elmwood Park Fire Department in 2003. On top of this, he also oversees all the food vendors for the Taste of Elmwood Park.
After spending 34 years in the fire service, Marino has seen many things on the job. “I’ve been on more heartbreaking calls than I care to remember. Especially calls that involve young people.” Luckily, not every day is filled with heartbreak. “Some days, you have calls all day, and other days you sit and do nothing.”
One incident stands out in Marino’s memory: “One day, I was sitting out in front of the station reading the paper when a little old lady came up to me with a jar of pickles and asked me if I could open it, since her hands were riddled with arthritis. She told me her husband loves pickles, and she wanted to have them ready for him when he got home,” he recalls. “Part of being a good firefighter is to answer all of your calls gladly, so I opened up the jar for her, and she was on her way.”
Stories like this stick with Marino, and what he cherishes most aren’t the honors and citations he has earned, but the “thank you” letters he receives from the people he has helped over the years. In his office, he has an entire shelf filled with miniature firefighting trucks and other trinkets from people he has helped. And to him, those are what make the job worthwhile.
Marino has loved every minute of being a firefighter, and has had many fond memories along the way. “I would do my career over again in a heartbeat, only this time I think I would stay a blue shirt [regular firefighter],” he says with a laugh. “I loved being on shift. I didn’t mind going on calls. And I loved to cook.”
As for what it takes to be a good firefighter, Marino emphasizes the need to be healthy, educated and loyal. He says, “My advice is to stay fit, study hard, and test in a community where you believe you would enjoy working.”