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Some of you may be wondering why I have been blogging about, posting photos of, and otherwise sharing details about Tommy Foley, a New York City firefighter who died on #9/11. Why have I been talking up a new documentary created by this young man’s sister, which was unveiled over the last several days?

Just how did a girl from Seymour, Conn., come to have a special affection for one of the FDNY’s Bravest, and what makes her think that everyone else needs to know about it?

You need to know about Tommy Foley because he happens to be one of the most genuine and remarkable human beings I have ever met. Let me give you “the back story” on my short-lived and unexpected friendship with this young man from West Nyack, N.Y. and you can decide for yourself.

Have a seat. This is going to take a minute.

It was sometime in 2000 when I was working a side gig as a stringer for People magazine. My bureau chief would call me to offer assignments that usually required me to track down nuggets of info in towns of various celebrities who were “hot” at the time. I’d be sent to places like New Canaan, Conn., back when David Letterman lived there, or to Chappaqua, N.Y. , to nose around about former President Bill Clinton.

Once, I got to cover a red carpet event for one of the Harry Potter films, and got sent to help cover the lavish reception of one of Liza Minnelli’s weddings — neither of which got me all that close to A-List movie stars (although I can give you the skinny on “Ralphie” from The Sopranos, as far as how friendly he was… NOT).

Occasionally, I would get an actual interview assignment for stories about newsmakers like an upstate New York family’s quintuplets, or former Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy (does anyone remember him?).

This time, I got a real gem: How would I like to interview a firefighter who was named #10 in the top 100 list of eligible bachelors? (Tommy was tenth, behind celebs like George Clooney and Derek Jeter.)

Um, yes please?

I was given a phone number and a few details on what was needed, and went to work.
I called Tommy and introduced myself, telling him I wanted to come out to his home and interview him, his family, and some of his friends.

On the telephone, Tommy was instantly friendly. (The other night, while watching the documentary about Tommy, I heard many of his friends speak of his warmth, and I was immediately transported to that first phone call.)

Tommy, then 31, was living with his parents at the time, thinking about buying a house but concentrating on his career with the fire department and balancing that with a landscaping business on the side, a passion for rodeo bull riding, and spending quality time with his family and friends. Many people would say, “Too good to be true,” but Tommy Foley was the real deal.

He invited me to his home, and when I arrived, insisted we go out and have a bite to eat while I interviewed him. He had a seafood place all picked out, and it was as if we had been friends for years. First we sat down at the kitchen table with his parents, Pat and Tom Foley.

What was planned to be an interview became more like a visit with good neighbors. No doubt, Tommy’s friendliness and warmth was an extension of his parents. I gained insight on the character of this young man who could likely have dated movie stars but had instead been a chivalrous teenager who escorted more than one dateless young woman to her prom, usually when asked by a friend to take their sister.

He laughed off the People anointment. The star treatment netted him a lot of ribbing from his brothers at the firehouse — that’s “fi-ya-house” in New York speech, a manner that made Tommy all the more endearing. When he said he was a New York City Fi-ya-min, it was like he had been practicing that phrase his whole life.

He probably had. Firefighting was in his blood. His father, brother, and even brother-in-law all were firefighters, and Tommy was a rising star in his field. He joined the department at 22, was assigned to Squad Co. 41, and after nine years got the chance to join Rescue 3 in the Bronx. Rappeling from a building to rescue a man in 1999 was the first rescue that garnered the media spotlight for Tommy. That spotlight only got hotter, landing him calendar photo shoots and bit acting roles on The Sopranos and Third Watch.

Firefighting was the dream job Tommy insisted he would never give up — not for an acting career or any other, despite the opportunities he was getting due to his uncommon good looks and charisma. “It’s the best job in the world,” he told me.

When People launched the inaugural “Top Bachelors” issue (July 10, 2000), it planned to celebrate it in grand style. Again, I got the call from my editor: “We want you to be Tom Foley’s escort to the People party… We’ll send a limo to pick you two up…”

Of course, I never shy away from the tough assignments.

I watched Tommy work that party that night, where larger-than-lifesize images of him and other bachelors in the issue were set up all through the venue. He was as comfortable in the big-city setting of a fancy party where the Cosmopolitans are flowing as he was in the saddle of a horse — and there, I suspect, was part of the secret of who Tommy Foley was.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why this New York Cowboy left an indelible impression on me.

Copyright 2011 By Marianne V. Heffernan