Firefighting Pioneer and Renaissance Man

October 25, 2001

A pioneer black firefighter, Vernon P. Cherry showed he belonged, serving almost 30 years among the ranks of New York City's bravest. But his zest for life and living radiated far beyond the walls of Ladder Co. 118 at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge in the city's largest borough.

Cherry, who was about a month shy of 50 before he perished in the Sept. 11 attack, was 118's official vocalist. His melodic tenor voice could be heard at most firefighters' functions, including medal ceremonies and funerals.

He -- along with his five-piece band, the Starfires-regularly performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs, said his daughter, Selena Daniel of Woodbridge, Va.

But Cherry, a longtime court reporter, was as well-known and liked in the halls of justice as he was in area wedding halls.

"He was one of the most outgoing, friendly, nonpretentious persons I had ever met," said State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger, recalling when she first met him during the late 1980s, when they worked Small Claims Court together.

As he waited for cases to come before the bench, Cherry would take it on himself to answer people's questions, going beyond what he was supposed to do. "He hated just to do nothing," Schlesinger said of Cherry, adding that her family and his family-including Joanne, his wife of more than 30 years, and three children-became close. "He was just a terrific guy."

Cherry's mother, Fannie Mae, now 82 and a resident of Woodside -- where as a widow she singlehandedly raised six children -- noticed at an early age that he liked to sing, Daniel said. Somehow managing to obtain discount music lessons for her son, Fannie Mae took him each week from the family's Woodside home to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for voice instruction.

He graduated from Aviation High School in Long Island City. While working for the New York City Transit Authority fixing tracks, her father took several civil service exams, Daniel said. Being a product of the housing projects, he thought getting a city job would bring his family the stability he didn't have as a child.

Her father was somewhat of a Renaissance man, Daniel said. He was a scholar, a historian and a genealogist, among other things. And he also loved to rummage through thrift stores, where he acquired some of his most treasured finds, including musical instruments, artwork and golf clubs. "He couldn't pass up a good deal," his daughter said, amused that he had two sets of golf clubs, a right-hand set and a left-hand set. "He didn't take life for granted. He lived his life to the fullest," she said.

Daniel and others said Cherry also was a giving man who easily bridged racial barriers and got along with most everyone.

Cherry's daughter recalled how once-during a shopping trip to the local supermarket-her father tipped the bag boy $20 and told him to keep up the good work and stay out of trouble. The boy reminded Cherry of himself as a youngster, she said.

When the family lived in Coney Island, her father had close friends among virtually all the ethnic groups in the community, including Russians and Jews, she said. And during his years as a court reporter, Schlesinger recalled, Cherry regularly went out of his way to help people fight their cases.

Often some people would have to get transcripts but couldn't afford to pay for them, she said. Cherry would type the material and send it to them for free. "He was extremely generous and friendly," his daughter said.

Cherry, who had planned to retire at the end of the year, was working the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. tour Sept. 11. His was among the first companies to be dispatched to the towers. As his engine raced into Lower Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge, he and the five other firefighters aboard could see the towers-both had been hit by then-engulfed in a fireball.

By the time Cherry's unit arrived at the scene, Daniel said one of the surviving firefighters recalled, people were jumping out of the burning skyscrapers. Cherry reportedly went straight into one of the towers, which by now had been blazing for at least half an hour. He knew by the time he got there that this was a terrorist attack, his daughter said. Cherry's body was not recovered.

A memorial service for Cherry was held Friday at the Antioch Baptist Church in Corona. He also is survived by two sons, Ryan and Darien, both of Brooklyn.

-- Collin Nash (Newsday)