Ronnie Polaneczky: Grieving parents hope something positive can come out of firefighter son's suicide

Jack and Gerry Slivinski urge supporters to buy a copy of the "Nation's Bravest" calendar, the proceeds of which will benefit the widows of firefighters.
Jack and Gerry Slivinski urge supporters to buy a copy of the "Nation's Bravest" calendar, the proceeds of which will benefit the widows of firefighters. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 16, 2011

GERRY SLIVINSKI needs you to buy a copy of the "Nation's Bravest" calendar, the cover of which sports a gorgeous photo of her firefighter son. Because if something good doesn't come of his death, she says, "I won't make it."

It has been seven weeks since Jack Slivinski Jr., 32, took his own life, with a gun. His suicide might've escaped wide notice, except that it came on the heels of his public brouhaha with Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.

The commissioner was upset that Jack did not seek his permission before posing shirtless for "Nation's Bravest," a fundraising calendar featuring hunky firefighters from 12 cities.

Jack was charged with conduct unbecoming a firefighter and was stripped temporarily of his duties in the department's elite rescue unit. Although he eventually was reinstated, calendar creator Katherine Kostreva says it was unclear whether Ayers would allow Jack's photo to be included.

After Jack's death, though, she put it on the cover, with blessings from Jack's family.

The calendar will be released Thursday at a New York party. Next month, a second fete will be held in Philly, its net proceeds funding a charity to support the widows of Philly firefighters.

"The charity was really important to Jackie," says Gerry, as we sip coffee in the beautiful Pennypack home she shares with her husband, Jack Sr., also a firefighter. "All he ever wanted was to help people. He was that kind of person. Sweet, and very giving, and so kind.

"Our loss . . . ," she says, her blue eyes brimming, "I can't even put it into words."

What she will verbalize, though, is her conviction that Jack's treatment by the Fire Department contributed to whatever despair led to his suicide.

"He was so humiliated," she says. "He loved being a firefighter; he lived for it. When he was charged with 'conduct unbecoming,' it just broke him."

So she was appalled that Ayers, after Jack's death, told the media, "All of that was over," referring to the shirtless incident.

"It might've been over for the commissioner, but it wasn't over for my son," she says. "It shook him to the core. The commissioner doesn't understand that actions affect real people."

In the next breath, though, she admits that Jack was feeling other stresses, too, and had begun taking antidepressants. She won't elaborate, out of respect for those battered by guilt that, had they said or done something differently, Jack would still be here.

That's the cruelty of Jack's suicide. It's the last word of a painful conversation to which no one was privy. All they can do now is ask questions with unknowable answers, a torturous exercise.

It's just about killing Gerry.

"There are things we can't be sure of. That's all I know - that's the best I can do," says Gerry, helplessly.

She is in grief counseling with a marvelous therapist the likes of whom she wishes Jack had known before despair set in.

"I think Jack would still be here" if he'd sought counsel, she says. "If there's one thing I hope, it's that people will get over the stigma of getting help for their problems. No one should feel the pain we're feeling."

The day after Jack died, she says, he came to her in the night. She felt his presence and heard his voice as clearly as if he were standing beside her.

"He said, twice, 'I'm sorry, Ma.' He was telling me that killing himself was a split-second decision, that he'd take it back if he could. It was a comfort."

She holds it like a lifeline.


For help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK. For info about the fundraiser, go to www. nationsbravest.com/events/


Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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