RICH WOLFSON-MENTOR TO MANY-GOOD FRIEND TO MORE
Photo by DAMIEN DANISRich Wolfson, right, with Ron Jeffers holding their "Old Timers" caps that they received at a Lodi Fire Department Old Timer's Night.
In November, Rich Wolfson celebrated his 76th birthday. For several decades he was a private fire investigator, an expert witness, and he just loved his work. In the 1980's, he organized the New Jersey Metro Fire Photographers Association with the first meeting at his Garfield Company 1 firehouse, assembling a group of service fire photographers. He became a member of that company in 1974. After so many years of fighting fires, going through the rubble of burned-out buildings, and those damn cigarettes, his lungs gave out on November 17th.
Rich's work included specializing in fire and explosion incidents involving residential, commercial, industrial and vehicle fires. He testified as an expert witness in federal and state courts in New Jersey, New York and in Freeport, Bahamas. He was a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators. Earlier in life, he was a staff sergeant with the New Jersey National Guard Military Police.
In 1984, Wolfson organized photographers that shared the common interest of fire scene photography to promote the fire service and to utilize photography for investigations, training, fund raising, and to document the brotherhood of the fire service.
In 1985, the New Jersey Metro Fire Photographers Association (NJMFPA) was formed. The organization quickly grew from the original twelve members to over one hundred. The membership has included volunteer and career firefighters, police officers, dispatchers, fire service magazine staff writers and fire buffs. Persons with the common interest of fire service photography, whether it involved emergency scenes or fire apparatus.
The NJMFPA gave light to many local fire departments of the value of on scene photography taken by persons with cameras at their incidents. Close relationships between the club and officers and firefighters from many local departments had been established. This was Richie's Wolfson labor of love and something he was most proud of.
Through the work of its members, NJMFPA has promoted the state's firefighters nationwide by their photos published in national publications, including training books. The organization began holding an annual Photo Night where not only were there photo programs shown to participants, but valor awards were handed out to firefighters for both single and unit citations.
The uniqueness of a photo night is now part of the past with the internet, and witnessing emergency incidents quickly, or as it is happening.
The highlight of every Photo Night was the slide show presented by Wolfson, which he labeled the organizations show, and titled, “Tribute to the Bravest.” The program, with music including “He ain't heavy, he's my brother," never failed to bring out a full range of emotions.
With his experience, Wolfson authored the “Origin and Cause Investigation” chapter in a “Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighters I and II.” He also volunteered his time to hold photography classes at the Bergen County Fire Academy. In addition, he showed his program at graduation exercises.
In 1987, he opened a little shop in a store front on Main Street in Lodi, known as The Home of the Bravest. Fire antiques, books, badges, hats and shirts were some of the items made available. Richie was the first to come up with fire service tee shirts with “Keep Back 200 Feet” printed on the back. They were quickly sold out, and they were copied by other vendors. There were Sunday mornings when fire service vehicles were lined up waiting for Rich to open the store. Put on the coffee and a lot of fire talk! Many public safety contacts from different organizations were made through that store.
There are store front war stories. One Sunday afternoon, The Bravest received a “verbal alarm” for a working fire in a dwelling next door. One week night, Wolfson closed the store when a worker was trapped in a machine across the street at the Knapp Chemical plant. Rich captured the rescue operations on film, that was later used for training and the investigation. One of his photos was published across the nation. Rich and the victim later became friends.
Over the years, Rich Wolfson has conducted photography classes, and he was invited to fire department dinners with his, then famous slide program. His program was used as part of the opening ceremony of a “Firehouse” magazine Baltimore Expo.
Rich was a mentor to many. He was always willing to give advice in reference to fire investigations and photography. He was the type of guy who would literally give you the shirt off of his back.
No matter where he went, he always ran into someone he knew, or they knew him. Mostly, of course from the firefighting and fire investigation world.
“He was always willing to share his wealth of knowledge,” said Ian Marlo, a fire photographer from England, and one of Richie's friends. Marlo crossed the pond several times to attend Photo Night.
Back in the 1980's, firefighters and fire buffs would assemble at The Home of the Bravest, not just to purchase something, but to say “Hello” to Richie and enjoy his company.
On Sunday, November 26th, many of those same people, older, retired, or up in rank, assembled at a funeral home just a few blocks north of where The Bravest store stood, to pay their respects. This included “Brothers” from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Many stories were exchanged, including how well-known Rich was in the fire service and fire investigation field. He was more respected than he, himself, could have realized. He didn't have an ego. Just a down to earth guy.
Many will miss, and remember you for a long time to come.
It was an honor to know you and become best friends. I love you, Richie.