Fire chief lived up to nickname

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John E. O’Malley had a tough nickname: Black Jack.

And he lived up to it.

Once, the Chicago fire chief fell through a floor while searching a burning building. When firefighters reached him, Chief O’Malley was waist-high in water with a broken ankle. But he was still puffing on his cigar.

Chief O’Malley, whose son Jack O’Malley was Cook County state’s attorney from 1990 to 1996, died Friday morning. He was 88.

“He took everything 110 percent,” said his son Kevin O’Malley of Arizona.

Chief O’Malley served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II and joined the fire department in 1953. He ran the department’s first snorkel unit. A snorkel is a fire truck with a mechanical arm that can lift a platform to a burning roof.

In the 1960s and ’70s, he was captain of Truck 28 in a firehouse near Damen and Armitage in Bucktown. He was later chief of the Fourth Battalion for the area.

The 30-year fire veteran was highly decorated. He won one lifesaving award for rescuing a woman from the third floor of a burning apartment building. He carried her down a ladder while she kicked and screamed, his family recalled.

Chief O’Malley also was an athlete. He played on the fire department’s hockey team and enjoyed 16-inch softball.

When he was 65, he joined his sons on a ski trip, planning to sit on a deck and relax. But he couldn’t sit still. “He took ski lessons,” Kevin O’Malley said. “My brother and I were on a chair lift and we saw a guy skiing backwards.”

It was their dad. He hit a bump, spun around and skied the right way with his instructor watching in awe.

“He had a big old cigar in his mouth,” Kevin O’Malley said. “The instructor yelled out, ‘Jack, you’re a natural.’ ”

He played racquetball into his 70s. And at 78, the avid golfer shot his first hole-in-one.

In recent years, Chief O’Malley and his wife lived in northwest suburban Lindenhurst.

His son Brian has Down syndrome and works at Misericordia Heart of Mercy on the Northwest Side. Chief O’Malley used to lead a group of retired firefighters to do renovation projects there.

Other survivors include his wife, Loretta; daughters Kathleen O’Malley and Dr. Maureen Meehan, and another son, Timothy. Another daughter, Mary Loretta O’Malley, died in childhood.

A wake will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at Ringa Funeral Home, 122 S. Route 83, Lake Villa. A funeral mass will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, 135 S. Route 83, Lake Villa.

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