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Retired Philadelphia fire lieutenant survived close calls until Covid-19

Joel Weinberg's family remembers the patriarch as a "stoic" man, proud of his legacy as one of the few Jewish firefighters to make lieutenant.
Image: Joel Weinberg
Joel Weinberg with his son, Scott, in the early 1970s.Family photo

When Joel Weinberg returned home after a shift, his family could gauge how difficult his day had been by the amount of soot caked on his white Philadelphia Fire Department lieutenant's shirt.

"Sometimes we'd be sitting down at the dinner table and he would stink of smoke," Scott Weinberg, a movie journalist, recalled about dinners with his father during his childhood. "We always knew don't mention if it stinks. My mom never even had to say, 'Until I clean his clothes don't say a word.' We all knew that it was just, like, an essential part of the job."

That's how his son likes to remember him: a stoic figure who preferred to talk about his beloved Philadelphia sports teams rather than the dangers he faced on the job or the anti-Semitism he occasionally faced as one of the few Jews in the department.

Or as a tough man with a soft spot for Disney — so much so that he followed his passion to Florida to work security at Walt Disney World as a second career after he retired from the department. Which made the circumstances of his death on April 15, exactly one week after he was diagnosed with Covid-19, so much more difficult to bear.

Joel Weinberg on a fishing trip.Family photo

Joel Weinberg died nine days after his 74th birthday, which was celebrated at an assisted living facility under lockdown in the early days of the pandemic. That turned out to be the last time his wife, Francine, got to see him.

"They called me and said that he had a slight fever," said Francine Weinberg, who would have celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary in June. "He said he didn't feel well, and he never complained no matter whether he was sick or not.

"His breathing got worse and worse. They put him on a ventilator a couple of times. Then they kept taking him off. It got to the point where they said if they keep putting him on and taking him off, it's going to do too much damage to his lungs."

His abrupt death caught the family by surprise, both because he didn't have any major health problems other than the difficulty walking that landed him in the facility — and because they were deprived of the proper Jewish mourning ritual.

"We didn't even get to have a funeral," said his daughter, Lisa Weinberg, who works corporate security herself. "I didn't get to say goodbye to him, you know. It just happened that quickly.

"He was cremated, and my mother got his ashes. A courier delivered his ashes to her door," she said.

Joel Weinberg's life deserves more acknowledgment: Born April 6, 1946, he grew up in Philadelphia as the youngest of four children of a father who was a traveling salesman and a mother who was a homemaker.

"His father had fled Poland at the age of 14," Francine said. "His last name wasn't even Weinberg. He was afraid to give his real last name, but he had heard the name 'Weinberg,' and that was the first thing that came to mind when they asked him his name."

Details about Joel's difficult childhood are sparse; he didn't talk about it with his family. But in America, this land of opportunity for the son of a refugee, a Weinberg could become anything.

Even a firefighter.

From the time he was a little boy, "he wanted to be a firefighter," Francine said. "You know how all little boys say they want to be a policeman and they want to be a fireman? He never outgrew that desire."

So he joined the fire department at age 19, starting out as a paramedic. An older nurse assigned to his ambulance, Thelma Rosen, used to invite the crew to her home for lunch on Saturdays. That's where Joel met Thelma's 16-year-old daughter, Francine. They married three years later, after she graduated from high school.

Joel Weinberg on his wedding day in June 1968, with his wife, Francine.Family photo

As he rose through the ranks, Joel was also married to the job. Even when he was off the clock, he hung out with his fellow Bravest. He may not have been Phillies legend Mike Schmidt at the plate, but he took his swings on a firefighter softball team.

Joel just didn't talk about his work at the dinner table, even though his family knew there were close calls.

"He never gave too much detail, but at one point he had to have some medical treatment, because he fell through a roof," Francine said. "He didn't realize that he was walking on a skylight on an old row house, because it was covered in ice. He went right through it, and he caught himself on the rim of the skylight with his arms."

Had he not caught himself, the fall could have ended his life's story then and there.

As much as he loved the job, his family said, he retired in 1995 as soon as he qualified for a full pension. He already had a second career lined up after retirement: In the 1980s, he had started working security for a company that handled large concerts and other events.

"My father called me from the house phone behind the stage at JFK Stadium during Live Aid," the 1985 benefit concert, "and he's like, 'Chevy Chase just walked by me, and I think I'm looking at David Lee Roth, but I can't tell,'" Scott said.

He became a favorite security guard of Norman Braman, then the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Lisa said, and he would often be seen at the end of televised Sunday football games when the camera panned to the owner's box.

"I was living with my ex in New Jersey at the time, and it was funny, because him and his family watched the games all the time," Lisa said, laughing at the memory. "And I would just say, 'There's my dad.'"

Then, in the '90s, he moved to Florida to work at Walt Disney World, apparently having fallen in love with the place during a family trip in 1979. That meant he got to gift his only grandchild, Lisa Weinberg's daughter, Nikole, with an annual vacation to the theme park that would make other kids jealous.

"We got into all the parks," Lisa said. "He took us everywhere, showed us the secret things that most people didn't get to see. He really gave her the royal treatment. That was a big memory for both my daughter and me."

Those are the types of memories on which the Weinberg family, denied the proper chance to say goodbye, will focus.