Jack Donio Jr. was a legend in Hammonton, the kind of man other men told stories about.
They said he could break a stack of four cinder block slabs — with his bare hand. They said he could light a cigar and put it out — not with his hands, with two sledgehammers.
But Donio, who died last month at 71, wasn’t just strong. He was a leader, too.
He was a volunteer fireman in his hometown for 47 years. He spent 13 years as chief of the Hammonton Fire Department, which made him the longest-serving chief in history there, said his friend, fan and fellow firefighter Mickey Pullia. Most other chiefs did that job for about four years, added Pullia, who’s also a Hammonton town councilman.
“The men had a confidence level in him that was immeasurable,” Pullia said.
But even when Donio’s health forced him to stop fighting fires and step down as chief in 2001, his voice was still respected — including by younger guys who’d never seen him in action at a fire.
“We’d go to him for advice on a regular basis,” Pullia says.
Eugenia Donio, his wife of 50 years, said Jack had a lung condition and needed oxygen regularly — a problem discovered and worsened when he passed out at a fire. He also had to stop working in 2001, and things got worse a few years later, when he got a crippling spinal infection and needed high-risk surgery.
“He was on the table for nine hours,” his wife said. “We were afraid he’d have to stay on a respirator forever, but he was off it the next day. ... He couldn’t walk when he got home, but he came a long way, so he could walk with a walker. It was very difficult, but he never gave up.”
All that was a tough adjustment for a guy who played football at Hammonton High School before he joined the U.S. Marines. He learned karate in the service, including that trick breaking the stacked-up pieces of cinder blocks, said the older of his two sons, Jack III. He could also handle a 40-pound sledgehammer like a toy, or a smoking tool — to knock the ash off a cigar.
“He was a hell of a guy, just an unbelievably strong man,” his son said. “Strong-willed, too.”
Jack III and his brother, Tom, worked with their dad on the family farm, which grew to almost 200 acres before the Donios got out in about 1992. Jack Jr., who also worked as a welder, became a truck driver.
But back on the farm, “He taught us valuable things. He had us working like men when we were 10 years old,” Jack III said. “But as hard as we worked, we had fun, too.”
Eugenia grew up with a farmer father, so she knew what she was getting into marrying one.
“I always worked with him on the farm. We were always together,” she said this week. “That’s what makes this so much harder.”
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