John C. Firmin

John C. Firmin

March 16th, 1945 March 23rd, 2019

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Obituary for John C. Firmin

Firmin, John Child of Somerville, passed away March 23 at the age of 74. He was the beloved partner of Dinah Starr, the loving father of John Firmin of Fayetteville, Arkansas and Moira Halloran Kuhn of Petaluma, California, the loving grandfather of Billie Rose Firmin and Aila Kuhn, and the dear brother of Rob Firmin of Kensington, California and Carolyn Firmin of San Francisco, California.

The son of John Crites Firmin and Margaret Child Firmin, John grew up in Findlay, Ohio. At Findlay Senior High School he was on the swim team and was president of the Teen Center. John attended Lawrence College where he met and married Nancy Pattullo. The couple had a son, John. They transferred from Lawrence to the University of Wisconsin, from which John graduated with a BA in philosophy and political science. After a year at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a summer working for a local attorney as a Law Students Civil Rights Research Council intern, John moved with his family to Washington, D.C. and found a job with the D.C. City Council, where he was instrumental in the drafting and passage of a law limiting the circumstances in which the use of deadly force by police could be justified. Continuing his legal studies at the Georgetown Law Center, John also worked for two federal commissions, on bankruptcy and consumer affairs, and authored an important study on automobile repossessions in D.C.

Upon graduation from Georgetown Law, John worked first for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston and then for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. As head of the consumer division at CLS, he supervised eighty attorneys and engaged in litigation in state and federal courts.

In 1975 he left the law to join the family business, Hancor, a manufacturer of corrugated drainage pipes. He worked there until 1982, becoming the company’s Chief Operating Officer and Acting CEO. His first marriage having ended in divorce, he had married Maribeth Halloran and they had a daughter, Moira. Leaving Hancor, John moved with Maribeth and Moira to San Francisco. In 1985 he founded Applied Dialectrics, Inc. (ADI), serving as its President and CEO until 1992. ADI manufactured critical electronic components, assemblies and advanced printed circuit boards for use in military electronics systems. After ADI closed, John established a business consulting firm. His second marriage ended in divorce.

Moving back to D.C., John worked as a contract attorney and business consultant. In 2006 he came to the Boston area to be with Dinah Starr, whom he had met while they were both students at Georgetown law. As a graduate of the Program for Leadership Development at the Harvard School of Business Administration, John was able to participate in their Capital Access Program, providing consulting services to a nonprofit organization in Newton. He became a certified mediator. His health began to fail in his later years, but he was still able to devote what energy and time he had to the formation of Ecotonics, a company organized to promote a method of growing algae which could make it commercially viable to use algal oil as a source of diesel fuel.

John believed in the importance of public service. Most of his legal career was focused in the areas of civil rights, consumer law and disability law. As a businessman, he saw himself as providing an important service to the community by giving people good jobs, and he was an affirmative action employer. As an active member of a Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, he became a regular volunteer cooking and serving meals to homeless people. His work for Ecotonics reflected his desire to contribute to the alleviation of global warming. John was intellectually curious, read widely and could converse easily on a wide variety of subjects. He was passionate about politics. He told great stories. His humor was ineffable, inimitable, ranging from the outrageous to the transcendent. He connected with people wherever he went. He would joke, tell his stories, inquire about their lives, find some shared interest. Sometimes he would find a way that he could help, which he did many times. He would cook meals for people too sick to cook for themselves. He was generous in dispensing legal and business advice, and particularly enjoyed his conversations with his son John about business strategies. He encouraged and supported people in fulfilling their potential. He was a good teacher, explaining complicated subjects in a way that made them easy to understand. John had a vibrant presence, a sense of adventure, and a love of life. When he was in his twenties he took a motorcycle trip alone across the country. He enjoyed traveling and had been to Europe, Bermuda, the Caribbean including Cuba, Mexico, and most states in the U.S. He graduated from the Bondurant race car driving school and was an ardent car enthusiast. He hunted and fished. He was a smart dresser. He loved to cook and entertain. He played chess with his brother Rob and others, and enjoyed movies, music and art. He collected ship models and created tableaux of famous battles. For a while he lived on a boat moored in the harbor of Santa Barbara, California. He built a house in Ohio, the design of which won a prestigious architectural award. He took great solace in the garden he created in his backyard in Somerville, with its flowers and fountains, bird houses, bird baths and bird feeders. It gave him pleasure to sit and watch the birds. He enjoyed keeping fish, and had a great affection for his dog Freedom and the cats in his Somerville household.

John had a large and generous heart. He cared deeply for family, was proud of his children and kept up with friends, both close and at a distance. He was a loving and supportive partner.

He was courageous as he faced one medical challenge after another. And he was deeply grateful to the skillful and compassionate medical professionals at MGH who cared for him in his last years.

A memorial service will be held at the Cambridge Friends Meeting, 5 Longfellow Park, Cambridge, on 7/27 at 2pm.

Contributions may be made in John’s name to the American Civil Liberties Union (, 1-888-567-2258) or to the Natural Resources Defense Council (, 212-727-2700).

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Service Details

  • Service

    Saturday, July 27th, 2019 | 2:00pm
    Cambridge Friends Meeting House
    5 Longfellow Park
    Get Directions: View Map | Text | Email |
    Saturday, July 27th, 2019
  • Reception

    Cambridge Friends Meeting House
    5 Longfellow Park
    Get Directions: View Map | Text | Email |
    Reception to follow John's service.

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George Capaccio

George Capaccio

John was my friend. I will always treasure the remarkable way he had of reaching out to people and connecting with them on a deeply personal level. His warmth and the interest he took in learning about others was only matched by how he could so effortlessly open his heart and share aspects of his life even with those who were meeting him perhaps for the first time. His generosity seemed boundless and expressed itself in so many different ways—through the sumptuous dinners he loved to prepare; his deep love for his partner Dinah; and the care that went into the many projects and undertakings that marked his journey among us. I marveled at the passion with which he responded to injustice. His spirit seemed indomitable as he faced one medical challenge after another and still maintained such an unyielding sense of purpose. From the beginning of our friendship, I saw in John a rare soul who possessed deep wells of feeling for both the beauties and joys of our world as well as for the tragedies that afflict us. I felt his greatest desire was to serve the common good and further the welfare of all those who, like me, were fortunate enough to call John their friend.
Comment | Posted at 07:13pm via Condolence

James Frank

My name is James Frank of Silver Spring, MD. I knew John because we were both kidney transplant patients, successfully carrying our new organ. We met through a former neighbor of Johns in Silver Spring, MD. I only knew him in the last 3-4 years of his life. John would call me from Boston to Silver Spring to ask how I was going with the transplant. Of course, we exchanged note, and shared experiences that overlapped a lot. As many others have noted, we met once when he was in Washington over a wonderful meal...when I was still on dialysis. He candor and experience meant a lot to me; I think he was impressed with how my wife and I were handling our situation. May he rest in peace.
Comment | Posted at 10:14pm via Condolence

Eddie Downes

You know what John was? He was...well: so cool! And I mean it. I had the great good fortune to meet him at an Agape event. And instantly liked him. He reminded me--within, well, say, five minutes--of a close friend I have had for 30 years..a friend who, like John was, is cultured, kind, interested in life and life's ups-downs-and opportunities. Simply put: I liked John. A lot. Instantly. Funny, but upon meeting
John that summer afternoon I felt the same connection I'd treasured with the aforementioned close friend. The difference, however,is that the wonderful connection I felt with my friend evolved over three decades--and i felt darn-near the same connection five minutes after meeting John....

Over the years we shared meals but--even more noteworthy (save one meal I'll describe in a moment)-- were the conversations we shared during those meals--of which, often, the server, in response to John's kind outreach, joined our conversation! The following, from the reflections on John's life to the left of this screen, summarized what I liked--so much--about John as we shared our life's stories--over meals together. That is, John's innate and admirable and amazing ability to converse "easily on a wide variety of subjects. He was passionate about politics. He told great stories. His humor was ineffable, inimitable, ranging from the outrageous to the transcendent. He connected with people wherever he went. He would joke, tell his stories, inquire about their lives, find some shared interest. Sometimes he would find a way that he could help, which he did many times. He would cook meals for people...."

Now...onto the cooking part, the meal part-i.e., the most special meal we shared...a meal, no kidding here, among the most memorable (not to mention fine, fine tasting) I've ever had. For this wonderful meal I remember well the place (his and Dina's home) and the variety of tastes and the garden in the back and...well...the menu John wrote up for me so I would know what to expect! (No kidding: he had a handwritten menu for me! And man...the menu didn't begin to do justice to the fine, fine, fine meal he prepared for me. his and Dina's place, up on the top floor, we had this meal--this happening--this event--when John was recovering from one of his illnesses (illnesses he so well pushed through--not letting 'em stop him). It was a unique meal--with unique tastes, so well prepared. So, well,darn good!

Anyway after a few hours together--eating, laughing, going back-and-forth, being treated to John's great breadth of knowledge, his innate curiousness about the world, and ability to be "right there with you as he spoke" I looked over.
And I can still see him. There. In the chair. Perhaps a little sleepy. Content--I hope--that he had provided a wonderful afternoon for me. An afternoon easily among the top, say, five I've had in 20+ years in Boston.

Yeah: he was so cool. So much like he I hope to one day be.

With love and gratitude for all John gave to me--to so many...via his style, his "I'm with-you-ness" captured in those wonderful we spoke, his rich ideas, his visions of social justice...his humor....
-Eddie Downes
Comment | Posted at 09:36pm via Condolence

Nicholas Hodge

It was my privilege to have been friends with John during the last ten years of his life. We talked very comfortably about a wide range of subjects. Some of his discerning observations come to my mind frequently. He was always kind to me. He was remarkably courageous in the face of his medical difficulties. I will miss him.
Nicholas Hodge
Comment | Posted at 01:26pm via Condolence

Dallas Jones

Dinah--Your tribute to John is so beautiful, and so beautifully written. He was sui generis. Your narrative reminded me of many similar incidents over the years I knew John where he would spontaneously help people or strike up deep personal conversations with complete strangers. That was one of his gifts. He was a man who thought deeply about moral issues as well as practical problems and was always open to new ideas and different perspectives. He could speak knowledgeably and at length about any topic you picked out of a hat--or if you didn't pick a topic, he would. He was warm and caring and ever ready to drop everything and help a friend. We have lost a dear friend and valued companion; the world has lost a justice-seeker; and the Captain's House Inn has lost its best customer. John--I hope you now have the answers to all those questions we debated over the years.
Dallas Jones
Comment | Posted at 01:20pm via Condolence

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