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Squirrel Hill fire captain's nature endeared him to many

| Monday, Oct. 26, 2009

James Lannis was a Pittsburgh original.

The city fire captain, nicknamed "Gypsy" for his travels around city neighborhoods, lit up the firehouse with his laughter for nearly three decades and regaled children with his storytelling.

James Robert Lannis died in his Squirrel Hill home Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. He was 89.

Mr Lannis will be buried in his Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire dress uniform. That's the way he wanted it, said his daughter, Sandra Lannis Gentile of Squirrel Hill.

"He loved the city. He was really proud of the neighborhood he grew up in," she said.

The ninth of 10 children born to Italian-American immigrants Nicola and Maria Lannis, Mr. Lannis grew up on Tecumseh Street in Hazelwood. Gentile said her father recalled how his parents took in two young cousins during the Depression and everyone worked to keep the family together. He told of selling newspapers on street corners and setting pins at the bowling alley as a youth.

"Anything to help keep the family together," Gentile said.

She said Mr. Lannis took side jobs, moving furniture or working as a laborer to help stretch his firefighter's wages and send his two daughters to parochial school.

Despite the long hours, Gentile said Mr. Lannis always seemed to have time for his children as well as other youngsters in the neighborhood. Gentile said her father's gentle humor helped a trio of small sisters — Carla, Kate and Dana Coyne — who lived nearby heal after the death of their father.

"They always told us how when they lost their dad, God gave them our family," she said.

A graduate of Allderdice High School and the Lincoln Welding School in Cleveland, Mr. Lannis traveled to Baltimore to find work in the shipping yards during the Depression. Eventually, he became an instructor at the Maritime Commission.

"He was so proud of training the first women for the Maritime Commission," Gentile said.

During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served for two years as a seaman first class and received commendations.

Gentile said her father developed a love of firefighting while serving as a member of the crash crew in the Pacific during the liberation of the Philippines.

Friends from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire remember Lannis for his good nature and his cooking.

"His specialty was hot sausages. It would cook all day and when you touched his hot sausage, it fell apart," retired firefighter Jake Carr recalled.

Carr, who worked with Mr. Lannis at Engine Company 13 in Hazelwood, said the captain had a talent for defusing high-pressure situations.

"We had so much fun at work. It was pleasant to go to work with him. He kept it on an even level. I had so much respect for him," Carr said, adding the entire neighborhood knew and liked the captain.

After his retirement, Mr. Lannis and his wife, the late Mary Frances Mock, enjoyed helping to care for their four young grandchildren. Gentile said the couple set a great example for her children as well as those of her sister, Lisa Grimm.

"Young people just got a kick out of him. He was all personality. ... He was an everyday presence for the kids. He was just very inspiring by his example," Gentile said.

In addition to his daughters and his grandchildren, Mr. Lannis is survived by a sister, Angela Murphy.

Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. today and 3 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at McCabe Bros. Inc. Funeral Homes, 6214 Walnut St., Shadyside, where funeral services will begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday, followed by Mass of Christian Burial at 10 a.m. in Sacred Heart Church.

The family asks that memorials be in the form of contributions to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, 55 Kenosia Ave., P.O. Box 1968, Danbury, CT 06813-1968.

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