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Former Flanders fire chief, wife remembered for ‘big hearts’

Ronald Worthington can’t count the number of times he has reached for his phone to call his big brother over the last three weeks — to tell him a story, to share a laugh, to say hello.

But every time, he stops himself. And reality hits.

Last month, during Laconia Motorcycle Week in New Hampshire, George Worthington Jr. and his wife, Mary, were out for a lakeside ride on their Harley-Davidson after dinner when they veered off the road and crashed.

Mr. Worthington, a former chief with the Flanders Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, died from his injuries Aug. 28 at Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia. He was 61. His wife was airlifted to Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where she was taken off life support early the following morning. She was 62.

And later that day, the family’s patriarch, George “Harry” Worthington Jr., died from a heart attack at home in Flanders. He was 80.

“Everybody’s saying he died of a broken heart. I said that in the beginning, too,” Ronald Worthington said from his home in Florida Tuesday afternoon. “Losing George and Mary? That was just too much for him. It was too much.”

He let out a deep sigh. “I still haven’t grasped the fact that George, my brother, is gone,” he continued. “George was always the go-to guy, he really was. He had the right answers. He never did anything without thinking about it and 99 percent of the time, it was the right way — and our dad was the same way.”

Memorial services are scheduled for October and, in the meantime, Ronald Worthington has started a GoFundMe page, “In Loving Memory of the Worthingtons,” to benefit the couple’s son, Joey — who was at the scene of the accident — along with his wife, Kristal, and their children, Grayson and Hayden.

As of Wednesday morning, the campaign had raised $4,760 of its $10,000 goal.

“It’s one of these things that, in this line of business, we deal with it a lot,” said Steve Januszkiewicz, paramedic for the Westhampton War Memorial Ambulance Association, where Mr. Worthington also worked. “You just don’t ever expect it to be one of your own.”

Shortly after the crash, FNVA Chief Mark Dunleavy traveled with fellow chiefs and ambulance members to New Hampshire to be with the couple’s son, who was riding with another couple when they realized the Worthingtons were no longer behind them. When they turned around, they discovered the wreck that Mr. Dunleavy speculates was caused by a mechanical malfunction, perhaps related to the handlebars.

“I miss him. I’m sure by now, if he were still here, I’d be calling him to yell at him about something, or have him fix something for me,” Mr. Dunleavy said with a restrained chuckle. “It’s different. It’s different not having him around, it’s different not bouncing stuff off of him. He was in my position many, many a times and for far longer. He was a great chief. He was a great mentor. Nothing’s gonna replace that.”

From the time George Worthington Jr. was a young boy, his family knew he was destined to be a first responder, his brother recalled. At 11 years old, he was already chasing ambulances on his bicycle, racing after them from their childhood home in Flanders.

In his 32 years with the FNVA, he would go on to save thousands of lives as a critical care technician, and inspire scores of fresh-faced EMTs as their role model. He and Mr. Dunleavy were preparing for paramedic school before the crash.

“We all know that George came out night and day,” Susan Tocci, longtime friend and fellow FNVA emergency service volunteer, wrote in a Facebook tribute. “He saved lives, delivered babies and just simply held an elderly person’s hand when they were just lonely. His wife, Mary, had a heart of gold and George was able to do this for all in our community because Mary was so understanding as he ran out — not only 24 hours a day, but it could be as he sat down for Christmas dinner.”

While Mr. Worthington was out in the field, Ms. Worthington worked in the administrative office of Eastern Suffolk Cardiology, a position she held for 25 years. She was genuine, giving and loving, and absolutely adored her husband — and he her.

“It was true love instantly between those two,” Ronald Worthington said. “Mary was his first girlfriend. George was her first boyfriend. They didn’t date anybody else; they didn’t see anybody else. Once they started dating, they were instantly in love. Instantly.”

Their love mirrored that of Mr. Worthington’s parents, George and Leona, who predeceased her husband. She was quiet but unafraid to speak up, while he was always ready to tell a story and rarely without a smile on his face. The NASCAR fan and former Riverhead Raceway competitor also worked at Eastern Suffolk Cardiology, but as a courier.

“My father, he was more a class clown than anything else,” Ronald Worthington said. “He liked to see people laugh. Very rarely did you see him angry, always happy, always willing to help. He had a big heart, and George was the same.”

Mr. Dunleavy knew George Worthington Jr. to be selfless, dependable and mostly even-tempered since he was a child. And, luckily for him, he had a great sense of humor.

“When me and my brother were younger, we were at George’s house and my brother decided it was a good idea to draw on George’s car with a rock,” he said. “And needless to say, George lost his mind, but it was funny because since that day, my brother’s always been known as ‘Etch A Sketch.’”

The first responder was a people person to his core, his friends and family unanimously agree. He was the first to welcome and introduce himself to any stranger in the room. He was the first to help someone in need, to fix every problem thrown his way. He was “the guy,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

“The thing I can say about my brother was his heart,” Ronald Worthington said. “He had the biggest heart I know of anybody. I’ve heard stories from people that they were in trouble and they needed help, and it was late at night, and he would get in his truck and go. He was a very good-hearted, caring person. I don’t think he’s done anything bad to anybody, and my dad was the same way. My dad and my brother were mayors of Riverhead.”

Every day, the Worthingtons could be found socializing at 7-Eleven in Riverhead, where the father and son would religiously grab a cup of coffee in the morning, and again in the afternoon.

“That was the place that everybody knew my dad and my brother were gonna be,” Ronald Worthington said. “If you wanted to find them, you didn’t call them on the phone. You went to 7-Eleven. I’m serious, because that’s where they were. They’re actually putting a plaque up in the corner where they used to stand.”

When he wasn’t on an ambulance call or schmoozing at 7-Eleven, George Worthington Jr. was almost always with his family, or working on his cars and trucks. He was a gear-head, his brother said, and a frequenter of the local junkyard even as a kid, pulling apart cars to build new ones.

“George and our three cousins built a figure-eight track in the woods behind the junkyard and they used to do Demolition Derby with cars that go 40, 50 miles per hour, crashing into each other,” Ronald Worthington said. “Yeah, that’s what they did. One time they took a Sunfish, cut it in half and made hydroplanes out of it. They were nuts.”

The reformed troublemaker calmed down a bit in his later years, much preferring to cruise on his Harley-Davidson with the wind in his face and the love of his life riding on the back.

“I just know, right now, between George and Mary and my dad, they’re where they should be right now,” Ronald Worthington said. “They’re all together with my mom and my aunt and my uncles, and they’re all sitting around, drinking coffee and bullshittin’. That was their thing.”

A memorial Mass for George Worthington Sr. will be held Saturday, Oct. 3, at 9:30 a.m. at St. Isidore R.C. Church in Riverhead, followed by a service for Mary and George Worthington Jr. at 1 p.m. at the Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance. Burial for the couple will be Sunday, Oct. 4, at 11 a.m. at Flanders Cemetery.

“There will always be that empty spot,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “I think, deep down, everybody will always remember George and what he did for that ambulance, and what did for the individuals at that ambulance. And I just don’t think that that hole will ever be filled. He’s greatly missed now and he’ll be greatly missed for years to come.”

The writer is a reporter for the Southampton Press.