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U. City’s Bravest and Kindest

By Eileen P. Duggan

George Nieman was never a firefighter, but for half a century, he was as much a fixture at the local firehouse as his brother William, a 36-year veteran firefighter. Developmentally challenged, George led a simple life as a newspaper vendor in downtown University City, an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis. But in the end, it was George who was carried to his grave by six U. City firefighters in a procession led by a pumper truck. It is George whose memory is honored by a granite bench on the street where he sold his newspapers for nearly 60 years.

The bench, inscribed “In memory of Honorary Firefighter George A. Nieman, 1925 — 2002, from the members of the University City Fire Department and his many friends,” is the culmination of decades’ worth of small and large gestures performed by U. City firefighters for George.

On the morning of April 26, 2002, a crew of U. City paramedic firefighters answered a call on Delmar Boulevard — U. City’s main drag — and found George sprawled on a bench, frightened and covered with blood. Enroute to the hospital emergency room, it became apparent that he had been stabbed multiple times in the chest and throat.

As the news vendor underwent surgery and recuperation, the firefighters kept vigil. Over the next five months, they visited often, transported their friend from hospital to rehab center to nursing home as needed, raised money to pay for his care and even named him an honorary firefighter.

But the firefighters’ devotion to George Nieman took root some 50 years before the attack.

“We had a special relationship with George,” said Dave Card, who knew George from the time he joined the Fire Department in July 1959 until after his retirement in 1994. “He was one of us. He was like family to us, and the guys took care of him. They watched out for him, and he took good care of us.”

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