George E. Graney, 90, a South Boston firefighter whose good deed grew into the annual Fill-the-Boot Campaign, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, has died.
"One night in 1952, when I was on duty at Engine 1, a man named Charles Crowley walked in and asked for help," Mr. Graney said in a story published in The Boston Globe in 1999. "At first, I thought he meant with his car, but then he said he was from Hingham and had two small boys with muscular dystrophy and asked if the firemen could help him in raising funds for an organization to fight the disease."
Mr. Graney, who died Tuesday at the Bostonian Nursing Care and Rehab Center in Dorchester, was president of Firefighters' Local 718 at the time. He allowed Crowley to address the next union meeting. His talk was so powerful that about 20 firefighters collected funds door-to-door and distributed collection canisters to local stores and bars. The drive raised $5,000 to aid the Crowley children.
Two years later, at the convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Miami, Mr. Graney urged the national group to participate in the fund-raising. The motion passed unanimously, and the group has since raised more than $220 million for the annual Labor Day Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.
"He was a real people person who could talk the ears off a brass monkey," his son, Thomas E. of Somerville, said yesterday. "He was a man who was able to find something good about everybody he met. He would have made a great diplomat."
Mr. Graney lived and worked in South Boston all his life. "He was Southie through and through," said his son. "He loved the place and he loved to speak to people and hear their stories."
Mr. Graney was a Boston firefighter for 32 years before retiring in 1969 at age 55.
"When I was going to the old English High in the South End, there was a firehouse, District 7, next door," he said in 1999. "A fireman there was our next-door neighbor at home, and as soon as I turned 21, he made sure I took the Civil Service exam. I got on the department when I was 23 and was appointed to Engine 32."
Among the fires Mr. Graney fought was the November 1942 blaze at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which took 492 lives.
"I remember it as if it were yesterday," he said in 1999. "The bodies piled up against the exits, the people slumped dead in their chairs."
For the rest of his life, he made it a point to locate the fire exits every time he entered a restaurant or nightclub.
In 1959, Mr. Graney founded a South Boston Little League team that he coached out of the firehouse. During the school-busing crisis in the 1970s, he was a tutor at South Boston High School.
At Marian Manor Nursing home in South Boston, Mr. Graney was known as "The Piano Man" who came to the facility nearly every day for 10 years to play "In the Good Old Summertime," "Peg O' My Heart," and other oldies on a black Kimball piano.
Mr. Graney couldn't read music, so he learned songs by ear. He began playing when he was 12 years old, and a neighbor taught him how to play "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
He was also an L Street Brownie who took a dip in Dorchester Bay three times a week, 12 months a year, until 1991.
"It's a form of discipline," he said in 1987. "The pain is all between your ears."
In addition to his son, he leaves a daughter, Patricia Barry of Gill; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. today in St. Vincent de Paul Church in South Boston. Burial will be in New Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan.