A Man of Many Charms

January 1, 2002

Sorting through photos for her husband Robert's wake in November, Julie McMahon was struck by how hard it was to find an image of him standing alone. The Woodside firefighter always seemed to be hugging or kissing or goofing around with one or another of the 2,000 people who would come to mourn him - and he was always in motion.

Carpenter, photographer, golfer, chef and volunteer at a camp for sick kids, McMahon had also just finished gutting and renovating the family home in preparation for the birth of their second child, who is due to be born next week.

"He had a very special way of making everyone feel like a friend," his wife said yesterday, as their 2- year-old, Matthew, fussed and played nearby. "He put so many things in his life of 35 years that most people will never put into 70 years."

Working at Manhattan's Ladder Co. 20 on Lafayette Street is a job with many charms for a firefighter, and McMahon sampled most of them during his nine years with the department.

Little Italy is part of its territory and that meant sweet sausage from Dom the butcher and fresh pasta from Raffetto's. McMahon knew the merchants of the neighborhood by name and would pick up extra mozzarella and ravioli to take home to his wife in Woodside. McMahon's lasagna was highlighted two years ago in a GQ magazine article on "guy food."

"You've got to use fresh Italian parsley," he told GQ. "It's the fresh ingredients women love."

But SoHo also comes under Ladder 20's protection, and McMahon was working toward a bachelor's degree in fine arts studying painting and photography. During his years on Lafayette Street, he witnessed the neighborhood's transformation from industrial district to style center at close range.

"He loved being so close to all the galleries," his wife said. "Going in to do fire inspections, he got to see some really neat places."

McMahon also had a really big heart. After the younger brother of a friend died of leukemia, he volunteered for two weeks as a counselor at Happiness Is Camping, a special camp for kids with cancer, in Blairstown, N.J. There, he met Julie, a pediatric cancer nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who quickly won his heart. The two married 2 1/2 years ago, but they continued helping out at the camp and formed tight bonds with a number of the kids there, who stayed in touch with them year-round.

"I've gotten so many phone calls from concerned children since this happened," Julie McMahon said. "They were calling to comfort me as well."

-- Elizabeth Moore (Newsday)