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Farewell to a Hero, One From Superstorm Sandy

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Not long after the smoke started seeping through the doomed boardwalk planks, Point Pleasant Boro, N.J. native Jimmy Ivins would have been there, trying to save Seaside Heights by himself if he had to.

He was that kind of guy, the kind who was told to help clean up the streets in Point Boro after Hurricane Sandy, a storm worse than any Jimmy had seen while growing up there on Gowdy Avenue, just a half mile or so from the shoreline.

Only Jimmy wasn't around for this one, not available to jump on that Forked River, N.J. firetruck one more time and be the guy they called "Mongo," the big, innocent-looking funny guy who would go farther than anybody to get things done.

Days before the fire, Jimmy died, at 46. His Sept. 12 viewing was at the Riggs Funeral Home in Forked River, just as those first plumes of smoke peeped from under Kohr's in Seaside.

Nothing else would have kept him back.

"He was just a very energetic upbeat guy," said Mayor Wiliam Schroeder of Point Boro. "He always wanted to do more."

In the days after Sandy hit last October, many were unable to leave their homes; many more couldn't live in them. Jimmy was out there anyway, busting his butt all over the Boro, making it look like that "superstorm" was not much more than a hard rain, not the worst thing to ever hit the Jersey Shore.

Jimmy was a "laborer" for the Point Boro Department of Public Works, and he was the very definition of the job: A worker, one who never stopped doing it.

When he was kid, Jimmy got picked on a bit, dealing with the stuff they threw at kids who were a little different than most. But when Jimmy grew up, he stayed in Point Boro, anyway, putting in a good 27 years there, never too stingy to help even those who shunned him before.

"He never said no to anything," said of Ray Brandmahl, chief of the Forked River Fire Co., where Jimmy was a captain. Before that, Jimmy was captain of Point Boro Fire Co. Number 2.

He was the kind of worker who would do more then just push a tree out of the street after the big storm knocked it down. He made sure all the branches and twigs were pulled from the storm sewers, just so every last bit of Sandy floodwater would drain away as quickly as possible.

If he had to stick his arms down those sewers -- with that decades-old muck creeping up to his armpit -- to get every last stick, he would.

Jimmy was "Mongo," the Alex Karras character from the movie Blazing Saddles who was inexplicably gentle and also a little offbeat, but forever young. That's how he was known in the Point Boro and Forked River fire departments, up-to-his armpits in ash after fighting a big fire, but always the first to make people laugh, just when they couldn't laugh anymore.

"He was the first guy to talk to about getting the equipment we needed," Brandmahl said. "He would make the calls and get the price quotes. He would just keep going."

In Lacey, just as he was in Point Boro, Jimmy was fire-fighting royalty. At his Sept. 12 viewing, his colleagues showed up en masse, packing the Riggs Funeral Home to send him off.

Two Lacey firefighters stood watch next to the casket, as others watched a slideshow of Jimmy. They witnessed slide-after-slide of him smiling, whether he was wiping the soot from his face after dealing with a two-story blaze, or as he stood with his parents and his new bride, from 20 years back.

They laughed hard when they saw Jimmy dressed in a pirate costume in his garage.

"Was that Halloween?" I asked one of the firefighters, there myself to see off an old friend and classmate.

"I don't think so," he said.

They saw Jimmy, smiling, while he stuck an apple in an elephant's trunk. He was like an overgrown kid, they said. He wasn't jaded about life. He found good in everything, even when things weren't so good.

I first met Jimmy back when I was 8, when we were in Cub Scouts together. Jimmy grinned a lot back then, too, even as he was subjected to taunts and other stuff kids would say to him to get under his thick-as-leather skin.

Once in a while, Jimmy would lose his cool. He could only stand so much, and he'd fight back if he had to, showing the God-given strength that many never even dreamed he had. He was a kid who didn't do any sports, and you'd never see him in the weight room. But in the end, he always had the upper hand.

Most of the time, however, when he was confronted with that kind of thing, he would show an even greater sign of strength. He'd push the acrimony aside, just like he pushed away those big tree trunks from the Sandy-damaged streets last year, and he'd just keep grinning.

In the Cub Scouts, Jimmy was the real adventurer, always going a little farther than anybody else. He showed it when we were 11, on a camping trip at Turkey Swamp Park in Monmouth County, when he drove his father crazy as he kept getting lost in the woods.

"Where is that boy?" his father would say. But Jimmy would almost always re-emerge soon after, just before his father would go looking for him.

His father's face would be filled with anger. Jimmy did it to me again, he seemed to be saying. Jimmy would smile, and act like he was never lost in the first place.

The troop disbanded by the time Jimmy and I reached 14. I got a bit jaded about Boy Scouts, not happy about how the troop sort of withered and died when it lost membership.

Not Jimmy. When he grew up, Jimmy was a scout leader, and he almost always was the first speak to some cubs about how to fight fires. Then he'd tell the 8- and 9-year-olds everything ever wanted to know about the history of the fire department.

He never had index cards or prepared notes. He was just Jimmy.

"He was quite the cut-up," Schroeder said. "But he was a hard worker. He took a lot of classes to help improve his mechanical abilities."

In Seaside Heights and Seaside Park that day, on Sept. 12, when that big fire was tearing up more than 20 businesses, and destroying what was barely standing of the hurricane-ravaged boardwalk, Jimmy would have been out there, probably doing the same thing: imparting his wisdom to others who haven't had the challenges Jimmy has had.

He would have been there, telling jokes and doing what he could to make the other firefighters feel better about what they were seeing.

Instead, Jimmy was at the funeral home, laying in his casket, doing what he always did: smiling.

Maybe this time he was merely satisfied, knowing it was job well done.

This story originally appeared on Patch.