By Arthur H. Gunther III

On this Labor Day of late sleeping, barbecues, beach trips and general laziness for many but the same-old, same-old for those who are not “honored” but must toil, a memory trip back more than 100 years recalls a man, Hugh Bonner, who created an example of the best of any who do “labor.”

Bonner, the ever-demanding New York City fire commissioner who docked two subordinates’ pay for being a few minutes’ late, established standards and a sense of responsibility in the FDNY.

An immigrant who survived the notorious Five Points hellhole in Manhattan to become the first Irish-born chief of department and whose fire prevention writings, still in the Library of Congress, include “Tenement House Fire Escapes in New York and Brooklyn,” Bonner demanded and got excellence in meeting fire safety standards. His modus operandi was to prevent fires, not just fight them. Firefighting was an ever-growing science, and he preached it by example.

He and fellow immigrant John Bresnan were firefighter heroes, each having saved lives on several occasions, according to the excellent work, “So Others Might Live, A History of New York’s Bravest” (Terry Golway, Basic Books 2002). They were inventors and perfectors of equipment still in use today, such as the sliding pole, water tower and the life-saving net. Bonner formed the first true training school for firefighters.

These two never missed a major blaze, directing individually at the scene and setting an example for the ranks. Most of all, they emphasized the necessity of establishing a more scientific firefighting force, the need for building design changes and the use of ever-more sophisticated fire response apparatus and on-site water supply, such as standpipes.

Day after day, and more accurately night after night, Bonner would review what happened at a fire scene so as to learn from the experience. He noted how light and air shafts in tenements served as treacherous flues in terrible blazes and pushed legislation to require changes in design.

On March 17, 1899, St. Patrick’s Day, a very holy one for an Irishman, he and fellow firefighters left the line of march after a blaze began at the seven-story Hotel Windsor. The Fifth Avenue scene quickly became one of great disaster as guests jumped from windows, though some used safety ropes, a requirement pushed by the likes of Chief Bonner. He took “personal command of the fire at an early stage,” as Golway puts it, Bonner noting later, “There was not a fire-proof thing in the place, and absolutely nothing to check the spread of flames all over the building once they gained a certain amount of headway.” The chief blamed outdated construction and was quick to incorporate that message in his dealings with the city and Albany.

Bonner, as chief of department, as fire academy leader, as fire commissioner, would fight a never-ending battle with politicians and profit-oriented developers to secure better fire safety in buildings. His political fight would cost him his job as department chief, with President Theodore Roosevelt sending him to Manila to set up that city’s fire department.

When Bonner returned to become the sixth NYC fire commissioner in 1908, he had a clear agenda in mind: fire safety, no ifs, ands or buts. That in these 100 years since there have been tragic fires caused by poor building design and shoddy construction; that the great FDNY itself has not always kept to standards insisted upon by such pioneers as Bonner and Bresnan; that the best equipment (radios, ropes, GPS locators) has been denied the Bravest cannot be tied to Bonner’s legacy.

If he were alive today, Bonner would personally look out for his men. He would know what dangers any building presented, since he made a habit of watching their construction. And there is no way a standpipe would have been severed, as happened in the Deutsche Bank fire that claimed two firefighter’s lives in 2007 as the 9/11–damaged building was being torn down.

Bonner held to personal, on-the-job responsibility to the end, succumbing to pneumonia, “the result of exposure at his post, while devising new methods and establishing new standards of efficiency demanded by the city’s increasing fire hazards,” as a March 14, 1908, New York Times editorial put it.

Chief/Commissioner Bonner demanded accountability and learned from experience, perfecting the art of firefighting so that both civilians and the Bravest even today are less likely to be slaughtered by irresponsibility and neglect. 

That makes the man one to be well respected on this Labor Day 2008.


The writer, a retired newspaperman, is a descendant of Hugh Bonner.


This essay first appeared in 2008.




By Arthur H. Gunther III

When you are walking with young children, in this case one 7, another 5, and you have to pass the time of day as the clock seems to run awfully slow, you have to be inventive.
Kids have fertile minds, and they are not yet cast into the tight thinking cubicles of adults. They also appreciate unusual humor and like weird, even absurd thinking, for theirs is still the land of the fairy tale, of limitless imagination. A pity that they grow up.
So it was, that on Broadway in Nyack, N.Y., the other day, just past the former home of the late actress Helen Hayes, we three came upon a virtual riverbed of small, smooth stone set not in a stream but between the sidewalk and the curb. An inventive way, perhaps, for a lazy fellow to avoid mowing more lawn.
So unusual was the sight that it required immediate comment, for we three like to make such proclamation upon seeing the unusual. It was also a way to, as I wrote, pass the time.
“Why are the rocks there,” asked the little one, a female. “Yeah, did someone go to the beach and get all those stones?” the elder, a male, chimed in.  “No,” the grandfather said. Then why are they there, both young ones wanted to know.
I had to come up with an answer, and fast, and believable, though these kids either take everything I utter as absolute though strange gospel, or they tolerate my musings and make it seem they agree so as not to hurt the old man.
“How many words did you learn in first grade?” I asked the male “Ten?” “100?” Sam answered, “More than that.” Beatrice gave no comment, for though she has learned words, quite a few,actually, she has yet to glean them from spelling tests in public school (she will in a week or so).
“Well, Sam, every time you learn a word and get the spelling right in the Upper Nyack School just a short walk away, the teacher places a rock, a small stone, in this spot.”
“Oh, c’mon,” he replied, then “Really?” “True,” I said. “You know how I am always saying  that you have rocks in your head?” Well, each rock you lose makes you smarter.
I think the kids are still trying to figure this one out.

   The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via This essay may be reproduced.


By Arthur H. Gunther III


Police exist by the people’s command, and only by that direction,  because we cannot secure ourselves. Theirs is a dangerous, usually thankless job, and the officer’s whole being is often in the sewer of humanity. So, it takes an extraordinary individual to do the work, to be invested with such power, to always remember how it is derived, to constantly understand that it is temporary and that it should not be misused.

In return for the job’s difficulty, especially the wear and tear that accumulates mentally and physically, officers must be properly compensated, and in the Northeast anyway, they surely are, though that was not always the case. Officers also deserve the respect of the citizenry on a blanket basis. Individually, that is up to the officer. There can be no arrogance, no expletives, especially no attitude, all of which may be difficult for an officer used to being in the trenches, his/her senses assaulted by domestic incidents and difficult situations that can warp your head.

Yet that is the job, and, yes, it requires extraordinary self-control from extraordinary officers. Otherwise, don’t apply. The men and women in blue must show respect and always, always allow others their dignity. That is Job. 1.

A case in point: Bill Bratton, the New York City police commissioner,  tells citizens not to resist arrest. That sounds right if you recite from a  Police Academy training manual. But then there’s the real, mean streets where over-stressed cops see and feel the full range of human emotion so overwhelmingly each day that they need a shrink at shift’s end but also where too many citizens think they must wear ID on their backs in 2-inch type because they feel they are in the Third Reich. On the streets, the interplay is not Academy textbook, and police must show dignity and respect.   Citizens, for their part, must calm down, accept police respect when given, and just go with the flow. Hopefully, the courts will bring justice in the individual case. So, respect, yes, but it must be mutual.

Truth is, NYC police, all police,  must be respectful of each and every person, as difficult as that may be day-in, day-out. The people hire the police and grant them special temporary powers because they cannot police themselves. Security is not gestapo. The cops must, hard as that may prove in their environment, remember that they work for the people. That must be key in their training. They must not be allowed to lapse into a protective fraternity of “them against us.”

In the recent New York attempted arrest of an individual said to be selling loose cigarettes, a man with obvious physical disability who died as police pinned him down, common sense should have brought not an arrest, but an appearance ticket. If this had been 1950 NYC, a beat officer walking the streets, as is so rarely done now, would have known the man, understood the community. The situation would not have happened, at least not the way it went down. But police have disappeared from the streets, and both they and the people no longer trust each other sufficiently, at times not at all.

Commissioner Bratton would do all a great service by taking more cops off desk jobs and certainly out of darkened-glass patrol cars and put them on street patrol. If the police get to know the neighborhood and interact with the people, the way it used to be, they would realize that most citizens are decent and law-abiding.  The Berlin Wall of distrust that has risen so high would come down.

The nation must also “de-militarize” the police. They are not military, not even para-military in everyday life.  Officers should look like they always have: dressed in standard, ordinary blue, gray or brown uniforms, with regular shoes. No paratrooper boots or camouflage pants. Those outfits make police feel more powerful than they have a right to be. Bring all this post-9/11 out-of-balance security down to earth.

Policing is a super tough job, and the officers deserve respect. But only if they earn that. That sort of training must be in the manual at the Academy and reinforced every morning at patrol shape-up. And we citizens ought to shape-up each day as well, approach an officer, even in a darkened patrol car, and say hello. There is a failure to communicate.

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at This essay may be reproduced.


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Any village, USA — Times change, people do, communities certainly. “You can’t go home again,” literally, as Thomas Wolfe put it. Yet, the pull of one’s childhood place is mighty strong, despite the “better” land you may now live in, some memories you might want to forget, the effect of the mind’s eye looking through rose-colored glasses and despite feeling alien in what was once your territory. Any village, any town where your being was formed is an extension of the womb, that particular place from that particular mother.
So it was with some goosebumps that I recently drove through my old haunts, on a volunteer errand to install a coat rack for a non-profit. My childhood village, which was also my father’s and to which my grandfather came in young adulthood, has changed so very much, the combined and continuing effects of suburbia eating up downtowns as strip and mall shopping rises; no planning for renewal and growth; older housing neglected, turned into rentals that often gouge immigrants and the poor; a population increasingly of self-interest and exclusion; and a government proving dysfunctional and charging high taxes for the privilege.
Actually, I am in my hometown every Tuesday, but my 2:30 a.m. entry to cook in a breakfast program is as focused on that task as a horse with blinders is on the race. So, I see little of the streets where I walked and rode my bike; the four schools I attended; my friends’ homes; and the country lanes where young adult emotions began to take hold. I do not see my grandparents going to work at the smoking pipe factory, or, if I had been there, my Dad running the 440-yard dash at the high school track. I cannot find my old teachers or great-grandparents; the hardware stores, the many druggists, the movie theater, the soda fountain. I do not grasp the sense of what was my shared community in the space of my time there.
But when I came later in the week, in the daylight to install the coat rack, I saw life on the streets. I saw so many new buildings, encountered heavy traffic, recognized no one.  I saw change, and I felt alienated, though I had no right to be affected, for this was no longer the exact place where I grew up, where life literally formed for me and those around me.
I then drove through the 1860 tunnel under the old Erie, the line that brought my grandfather to town and through which my father took us to swim in a nearby village. I continued on this road and another, taking a route back to my present home 10 miles away that I had not used for 20 years. I passed this house or that, the remnant of a farm, a hill where I picked flowers for my mother’s birthday when I was 10. I saw my past.
It was then that while I realized  you can never go home again, emotions set deeply inside always tug at your senses when you are close to your roots. It is like a mother’s reassurance to her child, no matter how old you become.

  The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at This essay may be reproduced.



Flanders, Before Blood

Flanders fields, before the bloo(painting by author)


By Arthur H. Gunther III

      If, at the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month of each year, from 1918 on when “The War to End All Wars” was over, you would toll a bell 20 times a minute for the 37,468,904 total in casualties, it would take more than 30,000 years to somberly do so. Today, on the 100th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, and also the date that the United States said it would not get involved, but eventually did, the dead, the wounded, those with “shell shock” must not be recalled simply as numbers. Why didn’t this First World War prevent all others? In one of the costliest battles of the 1914-1918 conflict, the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day. When it was all over and just six miles gained for the Brits, there were 1,219,000 dead and wounded. And that does not include the emotionally afflicted, people who in World War II we would term suffering from “battle fatigue” and now, as the wars continue, “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” War does not end because greed is always with us, greed of nations, individuals, the military-industrial complex that profits so well. War does not end because of power and false pride, nations who are really little children taking affront in what begins as a playground insult and escalates into utter horror, as happened when the dominoes toppled in 1914. The entangling alliances of that time over Belgian neutrality and world trade, culture, ethnicity, old hatreds, were the excuses to rally patriotism. Soon enough, the voices of the eager volunteers became the shrill cries of the brave as they went over the top, and as quickly, the deep stillness of the forever graveyard. War is folly, and in the end it creates little that could not have been gained by compromise and common sense, long before madmen such as Hitler have a foothold that can only be broken by war. In “All Quiet On the Western Front,” the famous post-war novel by  Erich Maria Remarque,  which details his fellow German soldiers’ physical and mental harm during the war and  the isolation and detachment from ordinary life when back home,  the character “Kropp” says, “”It’s queer, when one thinks about it … we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right?”

     And, “We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from the true, we had suddenly learned to see. And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”

     Now, 100 years later, the long trenches of the Marne, Passchendale, Verdun, so many other battlefields, still echo in history with their artillery fire, machine guns, death and madness, for war never disappears. The great still is indeed today’s all quiet on the western front, 2014, but the battles are stirring elsewhere.

      On this centennial of the beginning of a war meant to end it all, and, coincidentally the half-century mark of America’s accelerated effort in Vietnam, a nation with whom we now trade, the bells must continue to toll, for nations are ruled by men, too often by the folly of such.

    As in “All Quiet …”:  “While they (the pontificating teachers and politicos) continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.”

    The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at This essay may be reproduced.

Fladers, Before Blood