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Guiding Light

The son of a fallen firefighter follows in his father’s footsteps

By Eileen McCluskey

“He was a fun-loving, food-cooking, opera-passionate kind of guy,” says Patrick Spencer ’05 of his father, Lt. Thomas Spencer—one of six Worcester firefighters who perished in the Worcester Cold Storage warehouse fire in December 1999. “I curse him every time I sing La Boheme in the shower,” he jokes. “I can’t help it; I love the music he loved.”

Pat was 16 when he lost his father. A year before his death, Tom had introduced his son around the WPI campus. “My dad knew [FPE professor] Bob Fitzgerald,” says Pat. “We called him Fitzy—he and my grandfather knew each other through Fitzy’s work with the Worcester Fire Department. My father wanted to be sure I got the best possible engineering education; after he died, Fitzy took me under his wing and made sure I took the right high school courses to prepare me for WPI.” That preparation has paid off; Pat is pursuing an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and plans to earn a master’s in fire protection engineering by 2006.

The close relationship between father and son—Tom was Pat’s baseball and soccer coach and his golfing buddy—extended into a mutual love of the firefighting profession, steeped in the family’s history. “My grandfather—Blackjack Murphy, they called him—was a Worcester firefighter [for 50 years], as was my dad’s brother,” says Pat. “I always had this sense of firefighters as special. When everybody else is running out of the building, they’re the guys who have to go in.”

“It’s a serene setting, right behind the station where my father worked,” Pat says of the future location—in Institute Park, behind the Grove Street fire station— of a memorial commemorating the six firefighters who died fighting the Worcester Cold Storage fire. “I look forward to seeing the memorial there.”

Once at WPI, Pat found allies among his professors, including Jonathan Barnett, professor of fire protection engineering. Aware of Pat’s ambitions to be a firefighter, Barnett invited him to Queensland, Australia, for an introduction to FPE. “I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years investigating Australia’s own Worcester-like fire tragedy,” says Pat. “It was in a hotel where college students used to stay as they traveled through Brisbane. Seventeen kids were killed. We were asked to help establish ranking methods for Queensland’s Fire and Rescue Service so it could rate buildings in terms of fire safety.”

In 2003, Pat joined the Paxton Fire Department and has since fought dozens of fires. While firefighting “seemed like a logical step,” he admits there was a short time after his father’s death when he thought it wasn’t what he wanted to do. Pat now envisions a future beyond that profession. “I see myself as a teacher and a fire protection engineer,” he says. “I want to study fire—understand why it spreads across a ceiling, for instance. There’s an inherent educational benefit to that analysis. I’ll teach students that fire prevention should never be just about putting out fires. We need to give it less of a chance to start in the first place.”
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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 12:28 EST
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