Dark skies above La Cañada Flintridge reflected the somber mood inside St. Bede the Venerable Parish Tuesday morning, as hundreds of Los Angeles City Fire Department and Palmdale Fire Department firefighters gathered for the funeral of one of their own — La Cañada resident and Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Thomas Francis Dowling.
Dowling passed March 30 after a six-year battle with cancer. He was 54.
A bagpiper began the ceremonies by leading a procession of colleagues, family and friends into the church. The procession began at the Dowling family home, several blocks from St. Bede. At the church, firefighters in their full service dress stood outside the entrance at attention. Saluting as the late fireman’s family entered the church, the column of uniformed men and women stretched for several hundred feet down the sidewalk on Foothill Boulevard. On the church altar, a pair of fireman’s shoes, a fireman’s axe, and a fireman’s bell, later to be used for the ceremonial sounding of the bells calling firefighters home, were displayed.
Dowling began his career nearly 31 years ago with his first posting at LAFD Battalion 11. He rose through the ranks to become a captain in 1993. He served for 10 years as trustee, vice president and later president of the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association, an organization that assists firefighters, widows, orphans and family members during times of need.
“He was just a standup guy, hard working and trustworthy,” said LAFD Capt. John Pecel. His colleague adds that Dowling had a knack for getting into debates on just about anything. “Any side that you took, he took the opposite just to debate you.”
Pecel met and worked with Dowling in 1977 and worked with him again in the 1990s. “He was a fireman’s fireman. He worked his job to the fullest. Toward the later part when he got sick, he still had a good attitude about everything.”
Two ladder engine trucks parked at the front of the church had their ladders extended in a kind of salute, reaching up into the sky as far as they could, supporting a U.S. flag, the flag’s bottom rising into the air with each gust of breeze that passed beneath it, then slowly coming back down.
“He dedicated a lot of off-duty time to help take care of the fire department family,” said Battalion Chief Mark Jones of Dowling’s position with the relief association. Jones was Dowling’s classmate at the fire academy in 1977. “He was a real smoke eater. He loved to fight fire, get dirty, get in there, be first on scene.”
The sixth of eight children, Dowling is survived by his wife, Bety Spalding; children Sarah, Kevin Erik and Joey; siblings Mary, Annie, Joanne, Pat, Joe, John and Stephen and numerous nieces and nephews.
And what will Jones miss most about his colleague? “His big smile — [his] big smile on his big head,” said Jones with a laugh.
Dowling’s family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to www.firefamilyfoundation.org. Scroll down to Tom Dowling and follow the instructions on the website.
Staff writer Mary O’Keefe contributed to this story.