Northeast Times

Proud and heartbroken

That’s how it is for the par­ents of fire­fight­er Jack Sliv­in­ski Jr., who took his own life after a flap that arose after he posed for a cal­en­dar that be­ne­fits fire­fight­ers’ wid­ows.

There’s a very flat­ter­ing photo of Jack Sliv­in­ski Jr. on the cov­er of a 2012 wall cal­en­dar pro­duced earli­er this year by a New York City-based pub­lish­ing com­pany.

The cal­en­dar is called Na­tion’s Bravest: Fire­fight­ers Unite and fea­tures a dozen pro­fes­sion­al fire­fight­ers from dif­fer­ent U.S. cit­ies all pos­ing shirt­less. Pro­ceeds from cal­en­dar sales be­ne­fit se­lec­ted char­it­ies in each of those cit­ies. In Phil­adelphia, the money gen­er­ated will go to a fund that sup­ports the wid­ows of fire­fight­ers who are killed in the line of duty.

Sliv­in­ski, a May­fair nat­ive, is Philly’s rep­res­ent­at­ive. His broad, boy­ish smile eas­ily dis­tin­guishes him in the cov­er photo, per­haps even more than his mus­cu­lar chest and arms or his heavy-res­cue gear do.

The glisten­ing Lo­gan Circle foun­tain on the Ben­jamin Frank­lin Park­way and a dis­tant City Hall serve as a pic­tur­esque back­drop.

Yet, for all the aes­thet­ic qual­ity of that cov­er shot, it’s only two-di­men­sion­al. Jack’s par­ents — Jack Sr. and Gerry Sliv­in­ski — can’t help but re­cog­nize the irony in that, in light of the con­tro­versy that first swelled then burst over his par­ti­cip­a­tion in the pro­ject.

But re­gard­less how the gen­er­al pub­lic and per­haps even some in the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment viewed Jack Jr., he was very much a liv­ing, breath­ing and feel­ing per­son. It was this three-di­men­sion­al Jack Sliv­in­ski Jr. who took his own life in June, just weeks after his 32nd birth­day.

“I know he was work­ing hard. I know he be­lieved in the cal­en­dar. I know he was un­der duress with the cal­en­dar,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “(The con­tro­versy) rocked him. It rocked him to the core.”

A num­ber of is­sues weighed on Sliv­in­ski, ac­cord­ing to his par­ents. As a young fire­fight­er some eight years ago, Sliv­in­ski and a col­league got trapped in a house fire in Lo­gan. Their su­per­visor, Lt. Der­rick Har­vey, res­cued them, but lost his own life in the pro­cess. He was 45.

About five years ago, Sliv­in­ski mar­ried his wife Carla. They had no chil­dren and even­tu­ally sep­ar­ated.

Ac­cord­ing to Gerry Sliv­in­ski, her son was try­ing to re­con­cile with his wife when the cal­en­dar pro­ject de­veloped and thrust him in­to an un­ex­pec­ted spot­light for un­wanted reas­ons.

In April, Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers learned of the shirt­less pho­tos and trans­ferred Sliv­in­ski out of his be­loved as­sign­ment with Res­cue 1, the fire de­part­ment’s spe­cially trained heavy-res­cue unit. Sliv­in­ski’s fath­er, who is also a fire­fight­er, spent many of his 35 years on the job work­ing in the same unit.

In ex­plain­ing the dis­cip­lin­ary move to the news me­dia, Ay­ers said that Sliv­in­ski failed to get of­fi­cial per­mis­sion to ap­pear in the cal­en­dar and that the pro­ject sold “sex” as op­posed to “safety.” Amid pub­lic cri­ti­cism, the de­part­ment later re­in­stated Sliv­in­ski. But by that time the al­ways-smil­ing fire­fight­er had be­gun tak­ing anti-de­press­ant med­ic­a­tions, his mom said.

Sliv­in­ski’s par­ents don’t claim to know why their son took his life. But they do un­der­stand a lot about what was af­fect­ing him at the time.

“How do you know what de­gree it af­fects a per­son? You don’t,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “I know what he told me. I know what I saw. I know what was on the news. I know he was nev­er in trouble be­fore.”

•••

If noth­ing else, young Jack Sliv­in­ski wanted to be like his fath­er — just like him, in fact.

Jack Sr. and Gerry met in Wild­wood when they were teen­agers and were en­gaged as sopho­mores in high school, he at Fath­er Judge and she at Roxbor­ough High. They wed right after gradu­ation in 1974.

Jack Sr. ini­tially worked as a chem­ic­al ana­lyst at Rohm and Haas. But he al­ways wanted to be a fire­fight­er. So in 1976, he took a pay cut and joined the de­part­ment while also serving in the U.S. Mar­ine Corps re­serves.

Gerry Sliv­in­ski had her own spe­cif­ic plans.

“I al­ways knew I wanted to have two healthy chil­dren and I was happy,” she said.

Daugh­ter Jen­nifer was born in 1977. Jack Jr. ar­rived in 1979. They at­ten­ded St. Timothy Par­ish School and were al­tar serv­ers.

Fol­low­ing in his fath­er’s foot­steps, Jack Jr. at­ten­ded Fath­er Judge. He played lacrosse and gradu­ated in 1997. He then served four years on act­ive duty in the Mar­ine Corps.

“That’s where he got his train­ing. He was in nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al and chem­ic­al war­fare,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said.

Jack Jr. knew that his spe­cialty in the Mar­ines would help him a lot in achiev­ing his ul­ti­mate ca­reer ob­ject­ive, work­ing as a fire­fight­er in Phil­adelphia’s Res­cue 1. When his fath­er left the unit to join En­gine 36 and Lad­der 20 at Frank­ford and Har­tel av­en­ues in Holmes­burg, Jack Jr. filled his boots. Son also slept in his fath­er’s old fire­house bunk.

“He really ad­mired his fath­er. He really looked up to his fath­er, as he should,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “And he was nev­er in any trouble ex­cept for this thing with the (cal­en­dar).”

Jack Jr. wasn’t the greatest stu­dent, but he was “street smart” and stud­ied hard, his mom said. In ad­di­tion, he al­ways lighted up the room with his in­fec­tious per­son­al­ity.

“He al­ways had a smile on his face. And when he went in­to the Mar­ine Corps, they tried to take it off but they couldn’t,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “You’d sit with him for five minutes and you’d real­ize he was for real — just a good guy.

“My son was a com­bin­a­tion of us. My hus­band is strong and my son was strong. And my son was more out­go­ing, like my­self.”

He be­came quite the phys­ic­al spe­ci­men, too, mainly be­cause of the type of work he did and also be­cause he liked to stay in shape.

“He al­ways took care of him­self. If he felt he was put­ting on too much weight, he would just stop eat­ing the junk and get right back in­to shape,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “He knew the res­cue (unit) re­quired that he be in shape, and he made sure he was.”

He was a slam-dunk for the shirt­less cal­en­dar.

•••

The per­son be­hind the pro­ject, Kath­er­ine Kostreva of On Point Pub­lish­ing, has said that Sliv­in­ski was her choice for the cov­er be­fore his un­timely death. After his death, the Sliv­in­ski fam­ily in­sisted that he re­main part of the cal­en­dar.

Gerry Sliv­in­ski is cer­tain that her son’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the pro­ject garnered it a ton of ex­tra pub­li­city and with it a lot more earn­ing po­ten­tial. Jack Jr. was the only guy pun­ished by his own de­part­ment for par­ti­cip­at­ing in the cal­en­dar. 

Ay­ers’ dis­cip­lin­ary ac­tion drew na­tion­al head­lines.

Jack Jr. re­fused to back down.

“He de­cided to do the cal­en­dar and he did it. He wanted to sup­port the wid­ows and he did it,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said.

“It’s not just beef­cake, be­cause of what they’re do­ing for the com­munity. And if you see all the oth­er guys, they’re in front of their fire­houses and they have their cap­tains or chiefs around them.”

Jack Jr. got no such sup­port.

Be­fore pos­ing for the pic­tures and sit­ting for an ac­com­pa­ny­ing Web site in­ter­view, he con­sul­ted with of­fi­cials from his uni­on, Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers. But nobody thought to run it by the com­mis­sion­er’s of­fice. They didn’t think they had to.

His pic­tures wer­en’t taken in a fire­house. There’s no heavy equip­ment in them. Noth­ing in the pic­tures says “Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment.” Simply, he’s a fire­fight­er from Phil­adelphia.

After trans­fer­ring Sliv­in­ski, Ay­ers re­portedly told the Daily News that the de­part­ment has long been op­posed to mem­bers pos­ing for “beef­cake cal­en­dars.”

“We don’t sell sex, we sell safety,” Ay­ers said, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per. “That’s been our man­tra for the longest time.

“We get let­ters from chil­dren. They look up to us. We can­not al­low them to be show­ing nipples in pho­to­graphs of Phil­adelphia fire­fight­ers.”

Sliv­in­ski’s par­ents say that Ay­ers’ jus­ti­fic­a­tion rings hol­low when you con­sider some of his own ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies.

Primar­ily, they point to a video­taped pro­mo­tion he did for a North Phil­adelphia book and mu­sic store, Black and No­bel. The video was up­loaded to You­Tube in March 2010 and re­mains pub­licly ac­cess­ible.

In it, Ay­ers is seen wear­ing his fire de­part­ment uni­form and es­pous­ing the mer­its of the store “for all of my in­tel­lec­tu­al sources, wheth­er it’s video, tapes, mu­sic (or) a book that I have to have. It’s here and we need to make sure that we sup­port Black and No­bel. That’s what it’s all about.”

It is not known if Ay­ers re­ceived com­pens­a­tion for the en­dorse­ment.

Gerry Sliv­in­ski claims that the store sells adult-themed and sexu­ally ex­pli­cit ma­ter­i­al that she ar­gues Ay­ers should not be pro­mot­ing, par­tic­u­larly with­in con­text of his po­s­i­tion in the fire de­part­ment.

Con­tent pos­ted by the store on its own Web for­um seems to sup­port her claims. One con­cert video shows a man per­form­ing a song called “Suck it or Not,” with lyr­ics in which he graph­ic­ally de­scribes his gen­it­als. An­oth­er video shows an au­thor pro­mot­ing her book, A Wo­man Scorned: Re­venge Served Sexy. The cov­er fea­tures a scantily clad wo­man hold­ing a large kit­chen knife.

“How can you say my son is selling sex when the com­mis­sion­er is selling that?” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “Maybe the videos wer­en’t X-rated, but they’re still selling sex.”

Ay­ers did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment as the Times went to press.

•••

Both Gerry Sliv­in­ski and her fire­fight­er hus­band think Ay­ers should resign or be re­lieved by May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter.

“If you say to your men, ‘I don’t want you to do this,’ that’s OK. But you have to be fair,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “You’re deal­ing with men who will put their life on the line, but you have to earn their re­spect.”

“We’re united in the fact that this shouldn’t have happened,” Jack Sliv­in­ski Sr. said. “I don’t like the way he treated my son and the double-stand­ard.”

Now, they con­tin­ue to struggle with ques­tions, un­cer­tainty and empti­ness.

“He was his own per­son and he was very loved,” Gerry Sliv­in­ski said. “He didn’t need to live up to everything, but he did and he suc­ceeded and I was proud of him.” ••

For in­form­a­tion about the Na­tion’s Bravest cal­en­dar and video in­ter­views with the par­ti­cipants, vis­it www.na­tions­bravest.com or the Na­tion’s Bravest Face­book page.

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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