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Julian Olansky, 79; produced fire safety films

From behind the lens of his 16mm Bell & Howell camera, Julian Murray Olansky produced dozens of fire safety films designed to save lives. But while filming news footage of a winter storm one night in Newburyport in the late 1950s, he had to step in himself to save a colleague.

"We used to do some freelancing, and while I was filming, a wave hit me and I got knocked into the surf," said Nat Whittemore , a friend of Mr. Olansky's for more than 50 years. "He put down his camera, came in, and dragged me out. He saved my life."

Mr. Olansky, who dedicated his career to saving lives through film, died June 7 of cancer at Wingate at Needham Rehabilitative and Skilled Nursing Residence . He was 79 and had lived in Newton for 40 years.

A Boston native, Mr. Olansky graduated from Boston English High School, where he found his passion for photographing fires.

"His school was near the fire station," said his wife of 43 years, Sandra (Stinson) . "He used to cut class and ride the fire truck and go take pictures." He printed the photos himself in a dark room and sold them to all the newspapers.

After graduating, Mr. Olansky attended the Wentworth Institute of Technology before entering the Navy. He served only a few months before being discharged for medical reasons, his family said.

Mr. Olansky returned to Boston and began working for his father's fur company and with Acorn Films, where he learned filmmaking. Mr. Olansky also filmed news stories for WBZ-TV as a freelancer.

No scene was too dangerous for Mr. Olansky , co-workers and relatives said. He would do anything to get a photo or news clip, even risk his life.

"Once he was filming a boat turned over and being wrecked by a hurricane. He had to tie himself to a telephone pole because of the wind and the waves and it was freezing cold," his wife said.

He left the fur business to start his own film company, Fire Prevention Through Films, in the late 1950s. His first film, "Why?," focused on the 1958 fire at the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic grammar school in Chicago, which claimed the lives of more than 90 school children and three nuns.

He soon made a name for himself producing fire safety films for hospitals, fire departments, school systems, and businesses.

Shortly after he started the company, he met his wife while the two were vacationing in Maine. They both lived on Beacon Hill, but their paths had never crossed. "We met in Ogunquit, but the irony was we lived a block apart," said his wife.

They married in 1964 and moved to Newton in 1967.

Mr. Olansky kept scanners under his bed to be sure he didn't miss a big fire, a habit he continued into retirement.

"He'd sleep through the three-alarm, but if it was a four-alarm, he'd get out of bed and go," said his wife. " Then he'd come home smelling of smoke and I'd tell him to leave his clothes downstairs."

Mr. Olansky retired in the late 1980s when the technology for producing videos changed, his wife said.

He was a member of MetroRadio System , broadcasting public safety information as Dispatcher 8. He was a former president of the Boston Sparks Association , a fire buff club .

Mr. Olansky also enjoyed gardening and his model railroad collection.

"He turned his third floor into basically 30 feet of track and built a whole model of mountains and houses. He did a lot of it with his grandkids . . . he was very, very family-oriented," said his daughter, Justine Hebert of Shirley.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he leaves a son, Jason of Pownal, Vt.; another daughter, Jessica Arado of Canton; a sister, Barbara Berman of Ogunquit ; six grandsons; two granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Mount Ida College in Newton.

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