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Jim McNamara, fire lieutenant had bar named for him, dead at 78

Lt. Jim McNamara served 33 years with the Chicago Fire Department / provided photo

When family or friends came over for a visit, Jim McNamara would say, “Let’s turn off the TV, and let’s talk.”

He appreciated life’s little glories, like still having friends from St. Mel’s parish he knew since before kindergarten.

James “Jim” McNamara was the unofficial greeter at McNamara’s on Irving Park Road. / Family photo
James “Jim” McNamara was the unofficial greeter at McNamara’s on Irving Park Road. / Family photo

The retired Chicago Fire Department lieutenant liked to play air trombone to celebrate a touchdown while watching the Bears at McNamara’s, the bar-restaurant his daughter named after him.

“He would lead a march up and down the bar, singing ‘Bear Down,’ ” said T.C. Heaney, his daughter and owner of the pub at 4328 W. Irving Park Rd.

In his final days, when he had trouble breathing from the smoke and asbestos inhaled during a 33-year firefighting career, he kept his nurses laughing. They put up a sign in his hospital room with an abbreviation explaining he had “Shortness of Breath.”

“Do you have to call me an S.O.B.?” he joked.

To a neighbor girl with cerebral palsy, he was a hero. During the Blizzard of ’79, his car got stuck in the snow while he gave her and some other kids a lift.

“He literally carried her in to the house,” said another daughter, Ann Burton. “He carried her a third of a block.”

Another time, when the girl had to check in to the hospital, “He told her, ‘We’re going to ring the bell on the firetruck when we go past, and you’ll hear it, and we’ll think of you,’ ” Ann Burton said. “She said that helped her so much.”

At 12, after his father died, young Jim always set his alarm for midnight. He’d get up and call his German shepherd, Moses. Then, they walked to the factory where his mother worked to escort her home in the darkness at the end of her shift.

“They were like the classic West Side Irish family,” said a third daughter, Irene Shaughnessy. “His brother was a cop. My dad was a firefighter. Their sister was a nun.”

Mr. McNamara, 78, died March 1 at Rush University Medical Center. His doctors said he had interstitial lung disease from firefighting, his children said.

“He’d go into the burning buildings, and they weren’t wearing masks,” Ann Burton said. “They didn’t have masks in those days.”

Fire Lt. Jim McNamara using lifesaving equipment. / Family photo
Fire Lt. Jim McNamara using lifesaving equipment. / Family photo

His father, Nick, was a firefighter. His mother, Mary Ann O’Brien-McNamara, was an Irish immigrant from Castlemaine, County Kerry. Jim McNamara went to St. Mel’s High and served in the Army.

At the Holiday Ballroom in Jefferson Park, he met his future wife, County Roscommon native Mary Cunniffe. She loved his twinkly blue eyes.

“I thought he was great,” she said.

They married in 1962.

He served much of his career at the firehouse at Damen and Grace. He also worked as an electrician. They raised their family in Portage Park and attended Our Lady of Victory church.

Fire Lt. Jim McNamara and his wife, Mary. / Family photo
Fire Lt. Jim McNamara and his wife, Mary. / Family photo

A practical man, he told his three girls, “I’ll pay for your wedding, or I’ll pay for your [college] education. I hope you choose the latter, not the former.”

The McNamaras’ couch was often the first stop in America for many young Irish immigrant relatives.

“Even though we didn’t have a huge house, we’d make room for anyone” so they could find a job and their footing, Ann Burton said.

He liked boating on Twin Lakes and walking around Portage Park.

Mr. McNamara loved anything by Johnny Cash, especially “Ring of Fire.” He enjoyed watching “Pawn Stars” and the History Channel and National Geographic TV. He was a fan of Notre Dame football and his sister’s prune cake. Befitting a firefighter, he had a Dalmatian named Spot.

At McNamara’s, he enjoyed Stella Artois beer, T.C. Heaney said. When he said, “I’m ready for my finale,” it meant a nightcap of Scotch and water before he made his way to the door.

Mr. McNamara is also survived by nine grandchildren. Visitation is from 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Cooney Funeral Home, 3918 W. Irving, with a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of Victory Church.

Jim and Mary McNamara and their three daughters. / Family photo
Jim and Mary McNamara and their three daughters. / Family photo
Jim McNamara next to his firetruck, with neighborhood kids eating the firehouse food he shared with them.
Jim McNamara next to his firetruck, with neighborhood kids eating the firehouse food he shared with them.