Jack Slivinski Jr.'s decision to pose for a hunky firefighters' calendar that would benefit widows of fallen colleagues reflected what he loved about the Philadelphia Fire Department's elite rescue unit: "We don't leave anybody behind."
The former Marine took pride in upholding the ethic that made his job so satisfying. "To be able to help the citizens of Philadelphia is super-rewarding," he said in an online video accompanying the 2012 calendar being released Thursday.
From Day 1, Slivinski was going to be featured on the cover, not only because he was strikingly handsome, with china-blue eyes, thick wavy hair, an easy smile and a buff body. "Mr. Philadelphia" also would represent the city where Benjamin Franklin started the nation's first volunteer fire department.
But his high-profile role had unanticipated consequences. He shot himself to death at home June 25, a month after his 32nd birthday. He left no suicide note.
Now, like others who lose a son or daughter to suicide, his parents, John "Jack" Slivinski Sr. and Gerry Slivinski, are struggling to find meaning in his death.
Sure, Jack Jr. had his share of troubles, including a separation from his wife, although he had hoped for reconciliation. They knew he was unhappy; he'd recently begun taking antidepressants. He might have experienced residual sadness from the death of Lt. Derrick Harvey, 45, a close friend and colleague who died after trying to rescue Slivinski and another firefighter from a burning house, unaware they'd escaped.
The Slivinskis say, however, that unanticipated censure for baring much of his buff body in the "Nation's Bravest: Firefighters Unite" calendar fueled their son's despair. Despite the rawness of their grief, the two are coming to New York for Thursday's calendar launch party at a SoHo nightclub, where they'll meet the other featured firefighters. They'll attend another calendar party in Philadelphia Sept. 7, with proceeds funding the Widows Fund of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22.
Grieving Parents Support Son's Participation in Calendar
"We're going to support my son," Gerry Slivinski, 56, said Tuesday in an interview from her Philadelphia home.
"It makes me feel good that they're doing these things for my son and the widows, but I don't know if it's helping me or not," said Jack Slivinski Sr., 60, an original member of Philly's elite rescue unit.
After taking a month off, he returned to work because "I couldn't be in the house by myself with the four walls."
Fellow firefighters have been exceptionally helpful to him, his wife and their daughter, Jennifer. "Anything we need," he said. "They're bending over backwards."
Firefighters have expressed support for Jack Jr.; a Facebook page attests to the many people who cared about him. More than 1,000 people came to the memorial service honoring the former altar boy.
After high school, Slivinski spent four years with the Marines, then joined his father in the fire department. Special Marine Corps training in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons made it possible for him to take over his father's spot in the Rescue 1 squad in 2005. He also pursued his love of cooking, working part-time as a sous-chef at Apollinaire, an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. He hoped to open his own restaurant some day.
Slivinski prided himself on being in top physical shape. He thought baring his six-pack abs and sculpted arms showed he was prepared for physically challenging emergencies. When he saw on Facebook that Katherine Kostreva, a New York City-based photographer and writer, had published a calendar featuring the hunks of the New York Fire Department, he contacted her about doing a similar calendar for Philadelphia. Instead, she convinced him to be in her calendar, along with firefighters from Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, St. Louis, San Francisco, San Antonio and Tampa, Fla.
Slivinski had no idea his department might object to his going shirtless for a cause. "My son was naïve," his mother said. "He thought if he took his shirt off for charity … he would help people and that would be the end of it."
Son Felt Humiliated, Betrayed by Temporary Suspension
Said his father: "I don't know if my son knew all the rules about the fire department, but the head of the union said, 'Yeah, go for it, don't worry about anything.'"
But after the Philadelphia fire commissioner learned Slivinski had posed without obtaining permission, "that's when everything started to spiral downward," his mother said.
He was temporarily suspended from Rescue 1 in April for conduct unbecoming a firefighter and assigned to what his dad described as "one of the slowest stations in the city."
Although the suspension lasted only days, they seemed like months. "That's how agonizing it was for our family, how demoralizing, how humiliating," Gerry Slivinski said.
During that time, photographer Kostreva organized a rally and collected more than 1,000 signatures for a petition requesting Slivinski's reinstatement. The fire commissioner reprimanded Slivinski May 3 and gave him back his job. But Slivinski never believed the incident was fully behind him.
He repeatedly told his mother, "this is not finished. This is not over," she said.
City officials still sought to keep Kostreva from using photos that might identify Slivinski as a Philadelphia firefighter and offered to look for someone from another city to take his place in the calendar.
Kostreva, who grew close to Slivinski through nearly daily talks, said that by early June, their conversations "kind of tapered off" and he seemed troubled. She thought his mood sagged further on the antidepressants, so she gave him pep talks as the calendar project progressed. He was excited in a conversation the day before his death, when he offered "to roll 1,000 meatballs to honor the widows and feed them" at a celebratory dinner.
His suicide the next day blindsided her. Even now, her satisfaction at seeing the calendar finished is tempered by "a lot of grief. I feel responsible, too."
The Slivinskis are getting some help with their grieving from a "wonderful grief counselor," Gerry Slivinski said. "Husbands and wives grieve in different ways. There's so much I feel differently than my husband feels. We both have to grieve and respect each other."
As she wondered aloud what might have happened had her son found a similarly skilled counselor, she expressed slight comfort in knowing he "didn't take the gun and go out and shoot people. He didn't hurt anyone else. He took his own pain away."
She wants his story to end with something good, like getting people to buy the calendar "and support these firefighters in the way they are supposed to be supported," and seeing people like her son get the help they need. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else's child."
For a copy of the calendar, go to the Nation's Bravest website, www.nationsbravest.com.