Halted Thanksgiving dinners and candles needing to be re-lit for birthday celebrations were a way of life for the family of the late Darien Fire Chief A. Robert Szanto, his wife told The Darien Times this week.
For a man with his level of dedication to community service, Maureen Byrnes Szanto said it came with the territory. The couple would have celebrated their 25th anniversary this fall.
“Oh yes, after his family, the fire department came first in his life,” Mrs. Szanto said.
Chief Szanto, 66, died Thursday, June 7, at his Darien home with his family by his side.
Chief Szanto, who kept the Darien Fire Department in his heart for the 40-plus years he devoted to it, was a man who “would help anyone” — family, friends and fellow firemen told The Darien Times this week.
Born April 13, 1946, in Norwalk, he was the son to the late Andrew and Mary Tozar Szanto, Robert was a lifelong resident of Darien.
He had worked for the Stamford Tent & Event Services Co. Chief Szanto enjoyed cooking, caring for his home and was an avid Nascar fan.
In addition to his wife, Chief Szanto is survived by his son, Andrew Szanto; daughters, Danielle and Ashleen Szanto, all of Darien; a brother, Richard Szanto and his wife Cathy of Southbury; as well as nieces and nephews, Katy Szanto and Austin, Nick and Nora Byrnes.
“Above all was his sense of duty to others,” his family said.
Chief Szanto’s commitment to the Darien Fire Department spanned many years and many different roles.
He joined in 1964, and served as chief from 1979-86, and then again from 1992-95. He was assistant chief in 1975, 1977, and 1986. He was a lieutenant from 1967-69 of Engine Co. 41, and lieutenant of Engine Co. 42 from 1970-72.
He served as a captain in 1973 and 1991. He was chief engineer in 1976, secretary in 1967, and served as a fire commissioner from 1977-87, and again from 1991-93. He also organized the department’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1995.
He also served as the Darien fire marshal, and was a founding member of the Fairfield County Fire Chiefs’ Emergency Plan.
“He loved the fire service. He loved serving his community,” Mrs. Szanto said.
Chief Szanto’s drive to serve others didn’t stop with the fire department. His wife said he was “always helping somebody out.”
“Even if the neighborhood kids needed their bicycle tires pumped, he had the air compressor, so they didn’t have to go to the center of town,” she said.
Bob Harrel, a former first selectman, said: “I’ve known Bobby forever.”
“He was always a very hardworking guy as a volunteer for the town — he took his responsibilities seriously,” Harrel said.
“I think Darien meant a lot to him. Outside of his family, Darien was his life. He will be missed,” Harrel said.
“I can still see him cooking hot dogs at one of their open houses, he always had a smile on his face, and was a good fireman too,” he said.
Downtown developers and lifelong Darienites Phil and Danny Dolcetti said Chief Szanto was their childhood friend, growing up in the same neighborhood. They said they visited the chief at his home a few days before he died.
“He was a wonderful man, loved the firehouse. He was very kind and always willing to help,” Danny Dolcetti said.
He fondly recalled sleigh-riding behind Bailey Avenue with the chief as a child.
Phil Dolcetti said he remembers when Chief Szanto worked at H&L Chevrolet, and how fast the dedicated fireman would be gone if he heard the alarm calling him to duty.
“It didn’t matter what he was doing. I’d be like, ‘Hey, you’re working on my car!’” he said, laughing. “He was out of there.”
The chief’s fellow firemen called him a brother, an uncle, a mentor and a teacher.
Former Darien Fire Chief Dennis Smith said he grew up with Chief Szanto and called him an “older brother.”
“I trained under him. He taught me everything I could possibly want to know about being a firefighter, and the day I became chief was only because of him keeping me under his wing,” Smith said.
“He was a huge inspiration,” he said.
Dan Anderson, chairman of the Darien Fire Department Board of Trustees, said he learned a lot about leadership from Chief Szanto.
“Bob always had the respect of all the firefighters, officers and younger guys, because he led by example. If you don’t lead by example, people aren’t going to follow you,” Anderson said.
“He wasn’t afraid to do what they were doing and teach people at the same time,” he said.
Anderson said Chief Szanto was a good combination of being tough, but with a soft side.
“There are not a lot of people like that — who will give their life to a volunteer organization. We were lucky. Darien was lucky to have a person like that. He will be deeply missed,” Anderson said.
Darien Assistant Chief Shane Smith said he grew up down the street from Chief Szanto.
“He was like an uncle to me. He was a great mentor to me and my father, and the town of Darien wouldn’t be where it is without Chief Szanto,” he said.
Smith said he felt it was a tribute to the chief that he got to watch Smith’s movement up the ranks to assistant, following in his footsteps.
Darien Fire Marshal Bob Buch said he has known Chief Szanto all his life.
“I grew up in the fire service in town. My dad was a past chief. Bob did a great job, and I had a lot of respect for him,” he said.
“He gave his life to the fire service in town — there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to help another fire department. If you had a question about something, he was very knowledgeable. He will definitely be missed,” he said.
Darien Police Chief Duane Lovello said Chief Szanto was “such a part of all the things that make Darien the great community it is.”
“He was a selfless and dedicated volunteer to the Darien Fire Department,” Lovello said, adding that the chief’s tenure as leader of the Darien Fire Department was an “era.”
“He had a great sense of humor and an easy laugh. I’m glad I knew him and I am saddened by his passing. Indeed a good man,” Lovello said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said “it is always said when the town loses a long-time, committed volunteer.”
“I wish his family my deepest condolences,” she said.
With tears in her voice, Mrs. Szanto told The Darien Times she was missing her husband, “Just like everyone else right now. He was just special.”
“He was a really great guy, always willing to help, no matter who it was, or who it was for,” she said.
“He was just a sweetheart, and I loved him to pieces,” Mrs. Szanto said.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 16, at 11, at the Darien Fire Department, 848 Post Road.
Memorial donations may be made to the Darien Fire Department or to the DFD Ladies Auxiliary Scholarship Fund.