By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Stephen McKenna was the type of leader who knew how to get things done and do them right, according to his colleagues.
There were few things the veteran Salem fire captain couldn’t do — except stop the disease that ravaged his body.
McKenna, 54, died Tuesday after a five-year battle with intestinal cancer.
The community mourned the death of the popular fire official yesterday.
A prayer was read in his memory in the New Hampshire House of Representatives in Concord. Firefighters across the state also remembered their comrade, who had worked with the Keene, Westmoreland and Goffstown fire departments.
“He was well loved and respected by his troops,” Salem fire Chief Kevin Breen said. “He will be sorely missed.”
McKenna was held in such high esteem by his comrades, 54 members of the department shaved their heads in support of him last summer.
They also organized fundraisers to help his family with medical expenses. McKenna and his wife, Nancy, have two grown sons, Doug and Dan.
The Salem native was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and endured numerous rounds of chemotherapy. But McKenna battled through the sickness, continuing to make the daily, lengthy commute from his home in Westmoreland until a year ago.
He went on medical leave in February 2013, but last year said said he remained close to his firefighting brethren, even though he was at home resting instead of helping to manage the fire department.
When fellow firefighters shaved their heads last spring, they sent photos of themselves.
McKenna admitted then that his emotions got the best of him.
“It’s just the brotherhood — I would be doing it myself if the shoe was on the other foot,” he said last spring. “I’m not ashamed to say I had tears running down my cheeks. It means a lot.”
At that time, McKenna said he had just endured his third liver infection after the disease spread to his liver and lungs. His doctor had only given him months to live, but he managed to keep fighting for nearly a year.
McKenna, a firefighter for 21 years, joined the Salem Fire Department in January 2003. He rose through the ranks to become a paramedic, lieutenant, station officer, and captain and shift commander.
McKenna also served as the rescue program coordinator at the New Hampshire Fire Academy and as a member of an Urban Search and Rescue Task Force in Massachusetts, Breen said.
He was recognized for his more than 15 years of service with the Fire Academy by the New Hampshire Fire Standards & Training and EMS Commission in November.
As a shift commander with the Salem department, Breen said, McKenna was a solid leader who easily earned the respect and friendship of others.
Deputy Chief Paul Leischner agreed. He said McKenna was an excellent instructor, who could handle practically any task in the department with perfection.
“I just thought he was very sharp,” Leischner said. “He had a wide range of expertise ... He was very capable.”
While McKenna was certainly a taskmaster, it was also a pleasure to work at his side for the last decade, said Leischner, a 30-year veteran.
“It was easy to work with him,” he said.
McKenna was also remembered yesterday by Salem town officials, including longtime Selectmen Everett McBride Jr. — the board’s chairman for the past year.
“What happened to Steve is tragic,” McBride said. “He was a young man who had a family. It’s a sad, sad situation.”
McKenna was also mourned by his comrades across the state, including the Fire Instructors & Officers Association of New Hampshire. He was a lifetime member of the organization and a recipient of its John T. Ayers Fire Instructor of the Year Award.
“Our thoughts are with Steve’s friends, family, and all he touched in the fire service,” the organization said in a statement.