Gilfoyle, town crier, superstar of Boulevard

George shows off his numerous patches in front of one of Brookline’s fire trucks at the firehouse. Photo by Joseph Guzy.

George shows off his numerous patches in front of one of Brookline’s fire trucks at the firehouse. Photo by Joseph Guzy.

By: Joseph Guzy

Walk down Brookline Boulevard during normal business hours and chances are you’ll bump into George Gilfoyle. He’ll be carrying his many patches from the fire department in his left hand and a yellow plastic bag in his right. Inside is a fleece just in case the weather takes a turn. Normally he has his fire department hat on, but today it’s a casual baseball cap. He’s on vacation, after all.

“I’m taking five days off,” George says. “Including Columbus Day.”

Even on an “off” day, walking with George transforms the neighborhood of Brookline into Hollywood. The Boulevard becomes the red carpet, and the star is none other than George himself. Adoring fans to his left and to his right wish him well.

His celebrity status is a long time coming.

George is developmentally disabled. He suffered oxygen deprivation when he was born in 1945. It left him with a disorder that hindered brain development but not physical development. And his “disability” hasn’t hindered his ability to be great.

George’s radiant smile showcases his gift before he can even say a word to fellow pedestrians eager to say hello. He even contributes to their safety: “Watch out!” George calls out to some pedestrians before crossing the street. “It’s blocked up there you see? We have to go around this way.”

You can find George’s job description inside George’s home away from home, the Brookline Firehouse — it’s hard to miss the bronze plaque that honors him there. The plaque bears the inscription: “For a lifetime of dedication to the community of Brookline, for your many contributions to the public safety, and for sharing your gift of happiness with all of us.”

Growing up, when he wasn’t at the South Park Opportunity Center, you could expect to find a preteen George at the firehouse.

“He had this thing about fire engines, and he started hanging around the firehouse,” Clint Burt said. Burt, the catalyst behind the plaque, knows a thing or two about George. “As he got older they would just start giving him little responsibilities to, you know, make him feel good.”

“Whenever there would be a fire and they would start to get ready to go, he would tell everybody to get away from the doors so they could get the truck out,” Linda Monteleone said. “You’d see him. He’d get all excited because there was a fire, and he was going to help.”

Linda, a resident of Brookline during her high school years, vividly remembers George’s involvement with the fire department.

“Then a couple of days would go on, and George would tell you about the fire,” Linda said. “He would always say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad everybody is okay.’ He just reminded me of the town crier, the person who would just go around town and tell everybody everything he saw.”

As the years went on, George went from clearing space for fire trucks to keeping the community of Brookline safe.

Before the regular convenience of telephones, if there was a fire, you’d run to the nearest fire alarm call box. These red boxes, stationed every few blocks, would ring the fire department when pulled. The department could identify which box the call came from and head to that area to put out the blaze.

George’s first duty was to make sure these boxes were in working order. Not once a month, not once a week, but every single day.

“He always had his little notebook, clipboard and radio,” Burt said. “He’d walk around and test these things. Tested every one in the neighborhood. He’d get to a different box, call in and let them know he was going to test the box.”

Even though technology has done away with fire boxes, George is still very present at the firehouse.

His locker, right next to the door of the kitchen, reads, “Fire Chief General and Commander Chief Georgeo Armani Extraordinaire Director Commander and Instructor.”

George’s service with the fire department is also still very much present with him – literally in his hands.

After showing off his plaque, George puts down his yellow plastic bag in front of one of the sparkling red fire trucks. He shuffles through the patches, explaining the significance of each one.

“This one’s the ‘First Responder’ patch,” George says before hesitating for a moment. “Oh this is the same one, ‘First Responder’ again.”

The shuffle continues. City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety. Pittsburgh Firefighter Bureau. Pittsburgh Fire. Pittsburgh River Rescue. “Fighting Irish” with a leprechaun wearing a fire helmet and holding an axe.

Before he can finish, one of his friends from the fire department comes out to say hello.

“Wait until he hears I’m taking five days off,” George laughs.

As the two exchange pleasantries, more pedestrians give George a wave or a friendly hello. A motorcyclist pulls off the street to join in on the conversation. It draws a crowd. The celebrity is more than happy to accommodate his fans. He is quite the crowd pleaser.

George never been afraid to go above and beyond, either.

“This one time, I had a bright read sweater when I got off the school bus,” Linda remembers. “George made such a big deal out of it. He was noticing something I wasn’t paying attention to at all. He made it seem like it was such a special thing to have a big bright red sweater.

“He actually followed me home, telling everybody on the Boulevard ‘Look at this red sweater! Look at how pretty it is! I wish I had one that color!’ He was really excited about something so simple. My view of that sweater changed considerably because he was such a positive person and noticed everything you had.”

George does have a knack for noticing and remembering everything and everyone.

“He’s very intelligent and has a great memory,” Linda says. “He would see you from across the street and he would remember you. I can’t imagine how many people he’s met, but I do remember him calling everybody by name.”

It’s those stories and gifts that almost leave Burt speechless when trying to describe George. After pausing for a second, a light bulb seems to appear above his head.

“George is a legend,” Burt says. “There are a lot of legends for various reasons. You have your crazy drug legends. You have your sports legends. Whatever, your business legends. George is a legend in his own right.

“I guess his big legacy is just being a happy person that most everybody got to know one way or another. When you see George you just want so say hi.”

Walking by the last few shops on the boulevard, George looks inside each one to see if there’s anyone he needs to say hello to. A few pedestrians exchange pleasantries as he approaches the end of his walk.

“Well, this is my stop,” George says pointing to the CVS Pharmacy.  The automatic doors open with a brief ding. But before George can advance, an exiting customer stops and says hello.

As the automatic doors return to a close, George can be heard striking up casual conversation.

“I’m taking five days off,” George says. “Including Columbus Day.”