Tough Guy, Soft Heart and a Soul of Charity

January 24, 2002

Thomas Kuveikis turned down a future supermodel in his 20s.

Carol Alt, who worked in a bakery adjacent to the ice cream shop where Kuveikis' younger brother, James, worked, had seen a strapping, blond, leather- jacketed, motorcycle-riding Kuveikis visit his brother and took an immediate interest, James Kuveikis said.

She asked Kuveikis' brother to set up a meeting between the two, but Kuveikis, who was 25 at the time, declined because he felt Alt, who was 18, was too young for him.

Always popular with women, Kuveikis was often the object of infatuation for his younger sister Kathleen Gelman's friends, she said. "A lot of my best friends were in love with him," Gelman said. "They always told me how handsome they thought he was."

A 24-year veteran of the New York Fire Department, and a member of Squad 252 in Bushwick for the past five years, Kuveikis, 48, is presumed dead in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He and fellow firefighter Richard Sweeney spoke two days before about their "families and work," Sweeney said.

The two had met in 1978, just 11 months after Kuveikis joined the FDNY. "He had already made a name for himself when we met because of how tough he was," Sweeney said. "He was the kind of firefighter who would always go in deeper than he was expected to. He was a very aggressive fireman."

But there was a softer, more giving side to Kuveikis, Sweeney said. For the last four years, members of Squad 252 visited a priest at St.Barbara's Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick around Christmas, and asked for the name of the poorest family in the parish.

They would contact the family, set up a Christmas tree in their home, and present them gifts. "That was Tom's idea," Sweeney said. "He was the type of guy that you could always count on."

Born in Brooklyn in 1953, Kuveikis' family moved to East Williston soon after. He graduated from the Wheatley School there in 1971, and worked toward a degree in architecture at both SUNY Farmingdale and the Pratt Institute. He joined the FDNY in August 1977.

Kuveikis' younger brother Tim, a member of Engine Co. 214 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, cited his brother as "a major influence" in his life. He noted his brother's almost legendary reputation in the fire department, and said, "if I could be half the fireman that he was, I'll have a really good career."

When Tim was discouraged by the extent of physicality in the Fire Academy, he went to his older brother to vent, he said. "When I was in probie school I hated every minute of it," Tim Kuveikis said. "Tom would always tell me to hang in there, and that things would only get easier. He told me to trust him, and I did. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be in the FDNY."

In his spare time, Kuveikis pursued carpentry, a skill he learned from his father, Peter, while growing up. He would work 48-hour shifts at the Bushwick firehouse, drive to East Hampton to remodel his sister's eyeglass shop, and then drive back to his Carmel, N.Y., home, Gelman said. And he would never expect praise.

Nicknamed "the poor businessman," by his father, Kuveikis was "known for undercharging people for carpentry jobs that he did," Gelman said.

Once a year, Kuveikis would donate a day of carpentry to the Putnam County Land Trust, his fiancee, Jennifer Auerhahn, said. "The one day he donated was usually stretched to two or three," she said. But he never complained about it. Magnanimity was never an issue with Kuveikis. He frequently donated money to animal rights and environmental charities, she said.

"I guess everybody's got a hero in some shape or form," Tim Kuveikis said. "For some it's a sports figure or whatever. But I can honestly say that my big brother was my hero."

Kuveikis is also survived by his daughter, Kristen, of Nicholasville, Ky., and his sisters Christine Kuveikis of Washington, Conn., Karen Carroll of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and Kathleen Gelman of Woodbury.

-- Nick Iyer (Newsday)