‘As selfless and as honorable as they come’

Fire department mourns the loss of a lifetime member

Special to The Sun: Arthur “Art” Spell Jr. passed away Dec. 6 at the age of 88. He was a lifetime member of the Cinnaminson Fire Department and, since 2008, its chaplain.

When Arthur “Art” Spell Jr. passed away Dec. 6 at the age of 88, Cinnaminson lost not only a pillar of the community but also a “gentleman’s gentleman.”

Spell lived in the township for 50 years and would have observed his 50th year as a member of its fire department in 2021. Fire Police Capt. Jim Vassallo worked closely with Spell, whom he met not too long after his father-in-law — also a firefighter — died in 2013. As chaplain, Spell came to console and pray with Vassallo and his wife’s grieving family.

“It’s difficult to put into words how amazing this man was, because it’s hard to do him justice: He was just an all-around incredible, incredible human being,” Vassallo said. “He was as selfless and as honorable as they come. He was always kind to everyone, knew everybody’s name from the newest member of the organization to those who had spent nearly 50 years serving with him.”

John Stokes joined the fire department at the same time Spell did and considered him not only his best friend but also simply the best.

“He was very thoughtful, always out there helping people,” Stokes said. “We used to go out when a fireman would pass away and deliver grave markers to their grave sites after the funeral. When we used to raise money with fundraisers back in the old days, Art was always there making the hoagies we’d sell.”

Fire Chief Bill Kramer met Spell in the early ’70s and, in those four decades, never once heard him raise his voice.

“Calling Art a ‘once-in-a-lifetime kind of person’ is a good description of him,” Kramer said. “They don’t make them like him anymore.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1954 and graduating from University of Pennsylvania’s School of Physical Therapy in 1956, Spell served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958. He retired from his role as a physical therapist in 1999 — expertise that Stokes remembers benefiting from after surgery years ago.

Vassallo said service to others was one of Spell’s driving motivations, leading the army veteran to the fire department, where he would act as director and, later, its president from 1989 to 1992. Spell was also a lieutenant and captain of the Fire/Police Cinnaminson Fire Department, as well as president of Burlington County Exempt Firemen’s Association.

A lifetime member of the fire department, Spell became its chaplain in 2008, a role, Vassallo said, that Spell had filled even before it was officially offered to him.

“He was really our first chaplain,” said Kramer, who appointed Spell to the position. “He was the kind of chaplain who always took the time to visit someone who was ill or maybe had suffered a family tragedy. He had the right temperament to be able to talk to someone who was distraught or suffering and bring a smile to their face.”

“He just had a knack and the personality for it,” Vassallo agreed. “He was very gentle and soft-spoken, and you could always find comfort in his words. It’s a testament to who he was as a person, because he never had formal training.”

Vassallo joined the fire department as a tribute to his father-in-law mere months after the latter’s passing. Once he became president of the organization in 2018, Vassallo worked even more closely with Spell and got an intimate look at how compassionately the chaplain tended to the  fraternal family.

When the fire department lost Lt. Christopher Hunter in the line of duty in 2014, Spell made sure the fallen firefighter’s mourning peers had the support they needed.

“He had to deal with that personal loss of losing a colleague and a friend, but — as he’s always done — he put his own feelings aside to help the rest of the department grieve and get through it,” Vassallo noted. “He always knew what to say, when to say it, and he knew when not to say anything, too.”

And when Spell had something to say, everyone knew to give his gentle guidance the rapt attention it deserved.

“When he talked, the room would go silent,” Vassallo said. “You didn’t blink, you didn’t turn your head. He was quiet in his delivery and demeanor, but he commanded a room, because you knew what he was going to say was going to help you.”

In addition to his service to the fire department, Spell gave his energy to an array of organizations, like the Jordantown Civic Association in Pennsauken, Camden County Human Relations Council, Camden Visiting Nurses Associations, Asbury Community Church in Woodlynne, Cinnaminson Park and Recreation Commission, Cinnaminson Human Relations Council and Burlington County Board of Social Services. He was voted Outstanding Young Man of the Year Merchantville-Pennsauken in 1965, one of the five Outstanding Young Men of America in 1965 and one of the Community Leaders in America in 1969.

“He was so involved in so many things,” Vassallo remembered. “He did it all and he saw it all.”

“Art went above and beyond in everything and for everyone,” Stokes agreed.

Kramer believes that Spell exemplifies the kind of personality that fire departments tend to attract.

“Firefighters don’t look for a pat on the back, they don’t look for recognition: They do what needs to be done,” he observed. “And that was Art.”

Spell is survived by Ellen, his wife of 64 years; his children, Darlene Presson (Cedric) and David Spell; and grandchildren, Maya and Cedric, Jr. He was also a loving brother, brother-in-law and uncle, and will be missed by the friends, colleagues and extended families whose lives he touched over the decades.

“It’s an incredibly difficult loss for us, to not have him sitting in the meeting room every month, or being able to call him up on the phone to talk, or get to shake his hand anymore,” Vassallo lamented, adding that the outpouring of love, grief and personal anecdotes on the fire department’s Facebook page speaks volumes about how much Spell meant to not just Cinnaminson but its neighboring communities, too.

While COVID-19 restrictions necessitated a private service and burial, relatives and friends can say their final goodbyes to Spell on Dec. 14.

“With 49 years of service, we would have gone all-out on a fire-service funeral but, unfortunately, with COVID, that’s just not possible — but we’re going to be doing the best we can,” Kramer said. “We are going to post an honor guard in the funeral home and we’ll be part of the procession to the cemetery. And we’ve arranged for ladder arches, which is where two ladder trucks cross each other and then a flag hangs between them. The procession entering the cemetery will go under that flag. But Art deserved so much more than this.”

Vassallo finds comfort in knowing that Spell’s spirit will live on in the thoughtfulness he demonstrated and exemplified to those around him.

“Part of his legacy is that he spoke to and treated everyone with the same respect, no matter who they were,” Vassallo said. “Everything he did was done out of the pure joy of helping someone else, and I hope I have been able to model myself and my actions after his example.” 

“Art was always that calm, cool, collected person who never got upset with anyone,” Kramer recalled. “He was one of those guys who, when everything is going wrong, is the person who makes everything better.”

“I think he’d want to be remembered for his kindness and his service to the community,” Stokes added. “I could say a million things about him. He was a good friend. I could always count on Art to be there.”

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Spell’s memory to Asbury Community Church, 2220 Woodlynne Ave, Woodlynne, NJ 08107.