Way back in 1975, I met a person who turned out to be a larger-than-life influence on my life in the fire service. Sadly, he died in November 2021 at the age of 78, after a short and brave battle with pancreatic cancer. We became very close friends and have a wide range of memories and great stories over the last 46 years. His name was Al Morganelli.
Al came from New York city when his family moved to Columbia, SC to get a fresh start in the early 1950’s. With an Italian name like Morganelli, coming to South Carolina at that time was a huge challenge and quite a mind shift for a little Italian kid. He developed quite a strong personality that fit him well as he grew up.
As an adult, Al went into sales. He had the personality and wit that made him perfect for selling ice to Eskimos! One of his first entrances to the fire service came about when he lived in Parkwood, NC (outside of Durham, NC). He got appointed as Assistant Chief of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department just as they got started. One of his first tasks was to walk into the office of Elwood Inscoe. Mr. Inscoe was the Deputy Commissioner of the NC Department of Insurance for Fire and Rescue Service in about 1960. Al worked at that time for Buxton Wallets and Accessories. He self-titled himself as the “best damn pocketbook salesperson in the US”. Al was good at what he did. He came to see Mr. Inscoe to find out how to create and build a successful fire department. Al and Elwood became lifetime friends and he introduced Al to the world of fire truck and equipment sales.
Al went on to work for many of the famous fire truck manufacturing companies’ products in the US. That list includes John Beam, Emergency One, FMC, Atlas/EE, Gruman, Whelean Emergency Lights, and Hackney. He was known widely in the fire truck industry and helped start Emergency One in Ocala, Florida on in the 1970’s. Al was known across the country for his knowledge and technical aspects of fire apparatus and fire equipment. One of the biggest strengths Al had was being able to develop a business plan and make it happen. He trained many salespeople in the art of selling that he learned while working for Buxton Wallets. His famous motto was, “If you are going to say it, you better have the paperwork to prove it.” He taught these salesmen how to sell without bashing the competitor.
Before I start this series of stories, I must admit that every person I mention has now sadly passed away. I wish they were all still here with us to add or embellish these tales. The good news is that the statute of limitations has run out on any criminal charges now!
Early in his career of selling fire trucks, while still on commission-based sales; he made a major sale of many trucks to a military fire contract. As a salesperson, he was paid on a percentage of the cost of the trucks. At the home company office, the head financial person walked over the to the President’s office and told him that Al was going to make more money, due to sales, than the President’s salary that year. In minutes, a letter went from the President to Al informing him that he was immediately being put on a base salary instead of a commission. Basically, he went from a potential paycheck of $100,000 to $25,000 in a flash. Al’s version of the story goes that he cranked up his manual typewriter and wrote the following letter to the President, which I had to clean up for this article:
Dear President XXX:
I am in receipt of your letter regarding my change in salary. Screw you, strong letter to follow.
Signed Al J. Morganelli
He sued the company and won his money back. That was Al in a nutshell.
We travelled together to many parts of North Carolina visiting different fire departments around the state. I wanted to share a couple of stories about Al that might give you some idea of his sense of humor and his impact on all of us.
In the early 1960’s the NC Fire College and Pump School was held in Salisbury, NC. During one of the after-class discussions around the hotel pool at the Holiday Inn, a claim was made by Jack Slagle of the power and impact of the newly released Jim Beam High Pressure pump. Al suggested that the “discussion” end with an actual test of the pump pressure. With that, a hard suction hose was tossed into the pool, the RPM revved up, and the pump engaged. The water flowed across the parking lot! When another hotel occupant (a visiting Pastor per the story) opened his door to see what all the noise was about, his entire room and its contents immediately washed out the door from the high-pressure hose! This story ended with all the guys and the salesmen tossed out of the hotel immediately and made to pay for the damage. Al was dead in the middle of this event per his version of the story.
The next story is about the time several of us were travelling in the western part of North Carolina with Rufus Keith (former Chief of the Raleigh Fire Department) Al, Elwood Inscoe of the NC Department of Insurance, and myself. At that time in my career, I worked for Chief Keith as his administrative assistant in Raleigh. During the dinner, the young waitress mentioned to us how Elwood looked like a movie star, but she was not sure whom he resembled. Elwood had some Cherokee blood in him and was a handsome man. Al immediately told the waitress that Elwood was the famous Hollywood actor, Jay Silverheels who stared in the television story for the 1960’s The Long Ranger. Elwood immediately began to loudly disagree with Al’s statement but that just added to the story. The more Elwood blushed, the more Al embellished the story. The waitress believed every word Al said and left us to tell the rest of the people who were in the restaurant. We even had two people come over and ask Elwood for his autograph as Jay Silverheels, of course. Elwood never forgave Al for this event!
The third and final story came about when the Chief of the Raleigh Fire Department Sherman Pickard. This occurred in May 1989. (Thanks Mike Legeros!). Chief Pickard had to let a person leave the department due to safety reasons. The person came to the Chief’s office at the RFD Training Center to share their frustration with his decision. Unfortunately, the person brought a pistol. At the same time, there was a Fire Academy Recruit class being held. The story ended well as the person backed down after the police arrived. Al’s version of the story went a little different, of course. According to Al, who knew Chief Pickard very well, the recruit class went outside the center and started carrying protest signs. One group held signs up that said, “Save our Chief”, while the other group held up ones that said, “Shoot the rascal”. Of course, Al was never one to let facts get in the way of a good story!
I have so many more similar stories about Al, but I know one thing for sure. Although he was not known widely across the fire service in both North and South Carolina, he had a large heart. He was loved by everyone that knew him and he made a big difference every day in how he lived and how he helped people, including me. Through his friendship, I have met so many people around the United States. Going to the FDIC (National Fire Instructor’s Conference) with him was difficult as he had to stop and say hello to everyone he knew. Throughout his professional career he was knows as the “go to guy” who would help you any way he could. His heart and compassion to help his fellow man was as big as the sky.
He was a great storyteller, a great friend and never met a stranger. He will be missed. He did a lot of good for his friends and was a great husband to his wife Kathy and a great father to his three kids, Denise, O’Hara and AJ.
If you wish to send a donation, please send it to the Irmo (SC) Fire Department Foundation to the Al Morganelli Tuition Reimbursement Program at 6017 St. Andrews Road, Columbia, SC 29212.
Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.