He Tried to Make Every Day Fun

October 23, 2001

While in training with the fire department, when everyone had to keep his hair cut short, Gary Box brought in his clippers and offered up his services.

"He told them he used to clean people up for a mortician," his wife, Kathleen Box, recalled with a laugh. "He just figured everyone would know he was joking."

But people took him seriously, so Gary played along, giving out haircuts even though he had no experience.

He got better at the haircuts and perfected his act, wearing a teal-colored women's smock in the firehouse and draping a sheet over his subjects.

When Gary returned from vacation last summer, his friends at work surprised him with a barber's chair.

That was Gary, his family and friends said, always joking, having a laugh and entertaining people with his antics.

"He would always try to do something to make the day fun, always trying to make people laugh," his wife said. "He would plot on his days off. He would plot phone calls to make or things to say."

A fellow Squad 1 firefighter, Bill Spiess, said, "If you were going to work and you knew Gary was going to be there, you knew you were going to smile."

Gary Box, 37, remains missing at the World Trade Center. He joined the New York Fire Department about five years ago and spent just more than a year with Squad 1 in Park Slope.

Sitting in their living room with Gary's uncle, Robert Box, and his cousin, Dana Pettit, last week, his wife laughed with them as they reminisced about Gary's stories.

His uncle recalled how Gary might hike his shorts up to his chest and impersonate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Pettit said he spent hours finding the right words for a eulogy to give at a memorial service held Oct. 10. But sitting in the church the day of the service, Pettit said he began to feel ill and couldn't bring himself to approach the lectern.

"I was imagining Gary sitting next to me with his smirk, saying I wimped out," Pettit said.

His eulogy described Gary Box as the one person he knew who "demonstrated such consistent focus of ideals in his commitment to his family, his friends, his job and the challenges that he faced in his day-to-day life."

Gary Box spent his free time playing with his two children or fixing up his family's North Bellmore home.

He would come home from work with little toys he picked up for Dalton, 5, and Brigette, who is almost 3. He had the patience to spend hours at a time constructing train tracks or Legos with his kids.

"He was like a little kid himself, and he couldn't wait to play with the things he bought," his wife said.

He had some trademark lines he used with family and friends. He called other guys "George," and they would call him "George" in return.

His favorite adjective to describe a spread of food was "festive." He would walk into a bakery and say, "Oh, that's a festive piece right there," Pettit said.

Box grew up in Wantagh, where he finished high school a year early. He opted for work rather than college, getting jobs repairing cars and installing ceramic tile until he joined the fire department.

"He had long arms and big, strong hands, hard- working hands that were always calloused," his wife said.

In the days after Sept. 11, a red rose bloomed on a bush Gary Box gave his wife for her birthday. He is sending her a sign, she said.

"I feel like he's with me, like he's patting my shoulders. I miss him terribly."

-- Ann L. Kim (Newsday)