WESTMORELAND, N.H. -- Fire Capt. Stephen McKenna didn't mind the drive from Poocham Road to Salem. And now that he's gone, many of his former colleagues have found themselves making the same trek -- only in reverse.
McKenna died Tuesday night at age 54 following a five-year battle with cancer and his widow, Nancy McKenna, has told the Reformer her late husband's brothers in Salem, Keene and Westmoreland bent over backward to assist the family in any way they could in the final stage of the man's life.
"It's been unbelievable. Salem has had two fundraisers," she said, adding that some firefighters took the initiative to prune the McKennas' front yard up to its stone wall, pave the driveway and bought a ride-on lawnmower for her convenience.
Nancy McKenna said the affection so many firefighters have shown for her late husband is helping the healing process for her and her two sons, Daniel and Douglas. Some Salem firefighters, she said, are staying in town and driving the family to and from the funeral home and have been bringing them out to dinner each night. She even got a call from Gov. Maggie Hassan, who expressed her condolences and chatted with Nancy for about 15 minutes Thursday.
Stephen McKenna's funeral will be handled by Fletcher Funeral Home in Keene. Nancy said calling hours will be from 2 to 6 p.m. on Monday, with a Mass at St. Bernard's Church at 11 a.m. Tuesday. A significant number of firefighters are expected to pay their respects. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the McKenna Children's Trust at Service Credit Union in Keene.
McKenna was remembered as a kind man who invested himself completely in his two loves -- firefighting and his family.
Nancy told the Reformer she met her husband, who was born in Boston, at Salem (N.H.) High School and the two married in 1985. She said he worked at a car dealership before growing tired of working with a wrench in his hand. Once becoming a firefighter, he started his career with the Keene Fire Department in 1995, eventually working his way up to lieutenant. The family lived in Swanzey before moving to Westmoreland in 2002. Nancy said her husband accepted a job in Salem around 2003 and began an unusual routine he soon mastered. Stephen would drive the hour and 45 minutes to Salem and work a 24-hour shift before heading to Concord to teach at the New Hampshire Fire Academy (where he served as program coordinator for technical rescue) and then worked another 24-hour shift in Salem. He spent the remainder of the week with his family.
Keene Fire Chief Mark Howard said he began at the fire department two years before McKenna arrived and he got to know the family very well.
"His family made the decision to remain in Westmoreland. He was not only committed to his full-time job, but he was committed from a community standpoint," he recalled Thursday. "What stood out to me was, beyond his loyalty to serve the community he lived in, his commitment to the betterment of firefighters throughout the state through the Fire Academy."
Howard said McKenna worked countless hours training aspiring firefighters and readied hundreds, if not thousands, of them.
Spofford Fire Chief Gordon Rudolph said he was McKenna's student for EMT training at his fire station and describe him a phenomenal teacher.
"He was absolutely great. He was very conscientious of the students, making sure they understood what was going on when he was teaching," Rudolph recalled. "He was an extraordinary individual."
He told the Reformer he expects an enormous amount of firefighters will pay their respects Monday and Tuesday. He said the Fire Academy has set up a schedule to shuttle firefighters to and from the Keene State College athletic field to the funeral home on Monday and to and from the church on Tuesday. Rudolph said he imagines several Vermont firefighters will show up, too, because many of them went through McKenna's EMT training course.
Nancy McKenna said her husband loved his job and that only made his illness more painful.
She explained her family vacations in Prince Edward Island, Canada, every year and once had a piece of land she and her husband planned to use to build some property. She recalled that Stephen woke up one morning in 2009 with stomach pain and drove himself to the emergency room, where doctors told him he had pancreatitis. But McKenna was not a heavy drinker and never accepted the diagnosis. He saw a different doctor in Keene and was told he needed to have his gallbladder removed. Nancy said he was in searing pain the moment he awoke and learned a clamp on his bile duct had fallen off, causing McKenna to become septic and experience kidney failure. He was eventually stabilized and he was wheeled into surgery to repair the damage.
"They said, 'We have good news and we have bad news. We fixed the clamp, but he has a mass on his duodenum (which is near the stomach),'" the widow recalled. "They said, 'He is the most lucky/unlucky man in the world, because if we didn't go in and see this, he probably would have been dead in six months."
Nancy told the Reformer that Stephen had a Whipple procedure in addition to chemotherapy and radiation and visiting his doctor every three months.
"For a year and a half, he did awesome," he said. "He refused to not work."
But a cancer cell settled in his right lung and soon spread to his liver, contributing to six or seven infections within one year. Nancy said she took a year off work (as a kindergarten aide at Westmoreland Elementary School) to care for her ailing husband but he eventually took a turn for the worst.
"He was extremely brave -- even right to the very end," she said proudly.
Stephen McKenna's passion for firefighting rubbed off on his son Daniel, 20, who aspires to enter the field. Douglas McKenna, 23 has a degree in environmental science from Colby-Sawyer College and took a teaching job in Keene to be close to his family.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.