Heroics in legendary 1942 Boston fire still remembered in teen's hometown
This image from the Nov. 30, 1942, Boston Herald, taken from a National Fire Protection Association video, shows, top left, Ann (Clark) Gallagher, girlfriend of former Keene High School football star Fred Sharby Jr., seen at bottom left. Next to Gallagher are her parents, both of whom died in the blaze. Next to Sharby are his father, who also died, and mother, who was badly burned but survived. (NFPA VIDEO STILL)
KEENE - Seventy years after Keene High School football star Fred B. Sharby perished in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, he continues to be remembered by the high school football community.
Winning the Fred B. Sharby Award Thursday night was 18-year-old Lucas Luopa, co-captain of the Keene High School Blackbird Football team.
"I'm very honored to win the award. It means a lot to people and I'm proud to have won it," Luopa said.
Head football coach and Lucas' father, John Luopa, announced the award by telling Sharby's story.
Sharby, an 18-year-old Keene High School football player, was at Boston's Cocoanut Grove nightclub with his girlfriend, Keene football cheerleader Ann Marie Clark, and both their parents, when a fire broke out.
The two families had just attended a football game between Boston College and Holy Cross, the senior Luopa said.
"Fred, his mother and his girlfriend came out of the fire. Fred B. Sharby made a heroic decision that night to go back in for his father and Ann's parents."
A total of 492 people died in the nightclub fire, which shocked the nation and generated headlines worldwide.
Luopa said the Sharby award represents the best football player on and off the field, and is the most distinguished award at Keene High School.
Presenting the award Thursday night was Sharby's former girlfriend, Ann Clark Gallagher, and the first recipient of the award, Jack Zimmerman.
"If it were not for Fred, I might not be here," Gallagher said. "I was 16 years old then, I'm 86 years old now and I'm still here. Thank you, Fred."
The fire claimed Fred's life, as well as his father's and Ann Clark Gallagher's parents.
Sharby's older sister, a Regis College student, Pauline Sharby, who was 21 at the time, survived because she had left the Cocoanut Grove before the fire to join friends elsewhere in Boston.
Ann Clark Gallagher's daughter-in-law, Deb Gallagher, an administrative assistant at Keene High School, said there were several reasons for the high number of fatalities.
"There was dancing upstairs and the owner had blocked off a lot of the exits for the reason he didn't want people to sneak off without paying," Deb Gallagher said.
The doors also swung in, not out, trapping people.
"The last thing she remembers was Fred telling her to get down on the floor and crawl," Deb Gallagher said of her mother. "She doesn't remember this, but a bystander saw Fred Sharby Jr. pull Ann and his mother out onto the sidewalk and he went back in to get his father and her two parents and never came back out."
Fred saved his mother from the fire, but she never fully recovered and did not live long afterward, Deb Gallagher said.
Ann Clark Gallagher was in the hospital for two months. When she was released, she spent some time living with the Sharby family, she said, before she went to live with guardians.
Zimmerman, the first recipient of the award in 1943, is now a retired lawyer. Like Ann, he is 86.
Both he and Ann Clark Gallagher continue to live in Keene.
Zimmerman was a Keene High School junior and football player when Sharby died.
The two had been teammates.
"Fred was just a nice, quiet, self-abasing guy," Zimmerman said. "A very nice guy and football player. He was a running back."
The deaths of the Sharby and Clark family members hit the high school as well as the larger community hard, Zimmerman said.
"It was a terrible shock because not only did he die, his father died and the girl he was dating, she was my classmate and she lost her parents in that fire and she survived it," he said. "It was a complete shock for not just the school, but the whole community."
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Meghan Pierce may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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