Former St. Anthony mayor and firefighter James McNulty dies at 90


James McNulty

Community leader’s death shines light on a bit of village history

James “Jim” McNulty, a former St. Anthony Village council member and mayor, died at the age of 90 in early April.

McNulty, born in 1925, served as mayor of St. Anthony from 1963 to 1965, but in addition to being an elected city official, McNulty was also a husband, father, soldier, firefighter, volunteer and actor — of sorts.  

Though searching his name on the Internet Movie Database website doesn’t reveal a strong acting career — in fact, it doesn’t reveal an acting career at all — according to his son, McNulty appeared alongside John Wayne in the World War II flick “The Fighting Seabees” in 1944.

And though he may not have had a big role, for his family, watching the movie makes them proud, they say, because McNulty was a soldier in the Navy during the war, and the movie, in a sense, portrays him and those like him.

 

Paving the way

According to his son, Dan McNulty of Rosemont — also a former St. Anthony firefighter — rather than making his big mark nationally on the silver screen, McNulty’s greater legacy was much more local: his involvement in the St. Anthony community. 

McNulty, who grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, later became a founding member of the St. Anthony Village Volunteer Fire Department in 1956, but in addition to battling flames, he was also instrumental in further developing the fire department and ultimately implementing the switch from using volunteers to paid full-time and on-call firefighters, which is how the department operates to this day.

According to Dan, 56, the change was a contentious issue in 1969, but he says after residents noticed a dramatic reduction in emergency response times from about 10 minutes to 4 minutes, the issue smoothed itself out.

According to St. Anthony Fire Chief Mark Sitarz, the respond times have only improved since the early 1970s. They now average just over 2 minutes, he says. 

 

A little history revealed 

Sitarz, who attended McNulty’s wake with other members of the fire department, says some people were caught off guard by their presence. 

“He was 90 years old,” Sitarz says. “So he had been away from the fire service for 30 years at the least, is my guess. Some of the folks, even some family members, were surprised we were there since it had been so long.”

According to Sitarz, it’s that same length of time that has put some distance between the department’s story and its current staff. 

“We knew he was a founding member of the department because we have a plaque that names the founding members,” Sitarz says. “But as for the history of the department, a lot of that is lost, which is a bummer.”

Thanks to Dan McNulty sharing what he remembers of his father’s story, Sitarz says a sliver of the history is coming to light. 

 

A city’s fire department

“On a lot of levels a fire department is the identity of a city, and people take that personally,” Sitarz says, explaining that creating a non-volunteer fire department may have been an issue for some because it showed that the town — or village — was developing and becoming more like a city. 

“But overall, it’s safety that’s important,” Sitarz says. “I certainly think the city benefited from switching to a full-time department. But again, I wasn’t here at the point of that change,” Sitarz adds. “And I do understand changes like that can be difficult.”  

According to Dan, the change wasn’t only difficult for residents, but McNulty found the decision challenging as well. 

“He was one of those special people whose philosophy was, ‘You always try to do the right thing, even if it isn’t a popular decision,’” Dan says. “One of those decisions was to end the volunteer fire department and have a paid full-time and paid on-call fire department.”

Dan remembers his father struggling in his efforts to help drive that change, hearing a lot of negative feedback, but Dan says that his father saw his community developing, and that the fire department would have to reflect the same. 

 

The department today

“Dad received a lot of grief for that decision,” Dan says. “But today St. Anthony Village is a among very few cities to have these extremely high-level police, fire and medical responses.”

The fire department operates 24 hours a day and is made up of seven full-time personnel and 22 paid on-call personnel.

According to the department’s numbers, each year firefighters respond to more than 1,000 calls, including fires, medical emergencies, automobile accidents and mutual aid calls to other communities.  

In 2015, the department received the most calls for service in its entire history — 1,425 in all — according to its annual report. 

 

Investing in the community

McNulty wasn’t just a mover and shaker in town; he also “loved working with young people,” Dan says. 

Dan says his father volunteered as both a football coach and a Little League baseball coach with the St. Anthony Sports Boosters program. Later, he was also an American Legion baseball coach, working with lots of players who grew up in St. Anthony in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Dan notes. 

Other than his volunteer work, McNulty was a 28-year employee of Honeywell, working in production control at the TCAAP site in Arden Hills. 

His service in the United States Navy wrapped up when he was honorably discharged in 1945. 

 

‘Hell of a firefighter’

Dick Puffer, 84, of St. Anthony, was a close friend to McNulty and a fellow volunteer firefighter when the department was first started; he was also the town’s first police officer, he said.

“I always thought he was a great guy,” says Puffer. “He was a hell of a firefighter. I say the Rosary every night and I include Jim. I know one thing, he’ll be dearly missed by everybody I can think of.” 

McNulty died at the Benedictine Health Center at Innsbruck in New Brighton on April 9, leaving behind his wife Evelyn; his son Kevin and his wife Eve; his son Dan and his wife Theresa; and his daughter Kathleen and her husband Jeff. He also had three grandchildren, Kaitlyn, Erin and Henley.

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at twitter.com/JPooleNews.

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