Shortly after the COVID-19 crisis started getting more severe in New York state, a man came into the Finger Lakes Times asking for me.
JJ Woody, 51, of Geneva, had a story to tell that began 41 years ago. He claimed that in 1979 he caused an apartment to catch on fire. It certainly was interesting upon first listening, though with few details, but with all the coronavirus stuff happening and stories on that subject to tell I promised that I would get back to him when things settled down.
I spoke with my girlfriend Kim about that first encounter with JJ wondering if I might just be able to help with the closing of a cold case involving arson. I even checked the statute of limitations to see if JJ could be in any trouble confessing to a possible crime.
Well, I finally met JJ last week for lunch to get the full details.
The scenario that I had imagined was not going to be the case here. But the story he told was far more compelling than I expected.
In 1979 Woody was living with his mom and siblings in the third floor apartment in the building on Exchange Street where Gallagher’s was that is now Kelly’s Irish Pub.
His family did not have much money, and his mom worked several jobs to provide the best she could for her family.
On one particular evening his mom went off to one of her jobs, leaving a teen-aged relative to watch him and his sister.
He was only 9 then and says his memory is vague on a few things. For example, he remembers that there was no power that night in the apartment, but he doesn’t know if it was because of a power outage or if his mom hadn’t paid the electric bill. He does recall candles being used to provide light throughout the apartment.
He also remembers playing around in his bedroom, jumping on the bed, etc. A candle or two tipped over and started a fire that was big enough to strike panic in the young boy.
JJ says he ran to the back of the apartment and down the fire escape wearing only his underwear. Luckily for him, just across the way behind City Hall, the fire and police departments were located at the time.
The first person he ran into was a relatively new, young police officer named Bill Hastings.
What brought those early memories to the fore and led JJ to the Finger Lakes Times?
His current employment situation finds him doing odd jobs when and where he can find them. That day he was helping clean out an apartment, near the newspaper office, of a man who recently had died.
Among the items he sorted through were some old metal plate-like items and matching black-and-white photographs. They were from decades ago and were part of the newspaper printing process regarding photos. A photographic emulsion was used to hold the light sensitive image on the metal when.
The man who died was a former Geneva fireman and amazingly enough, JJ came across a couple of plate images showing the fire he accidentally started.
He then made his way to our office.
Of course, the best way to verify this story was to track down Bill Hastings, which was not too difficult since his older brother, Steve, still works at the FLT.
When contacted, Bill, 66, within seconds remembered with crisp detail that day 41 years ago. He was 25 and early in his 48-year career in law enforcement, most of which was with the GPD.
The first thing Bill said without any prompting was that he clearly remembered JJ approaching him wearing only his white underwear and saying, “My house is on fire!” Bill was walking his beat. He reached out and grabbed JJ’s hand, then notified the fire department as he and JJ headed back to the fire scene still holding hands.
It wasn’t the first time the two had met. Bill shared that JJ often accompanied him on his rounds along Exchange Street checking doors. He occasionally let JJ “rattle them” too. It was common for the two to hold hands along the route during those downtown walks.
Times were different then, Hastings noted. Cops often walked a beat and had friendly relationships with the citizens they were protecting. It wasn’t uncommon for police officers to stop and play a few pinball games with the kids. One reason they were outside walking in the summers is because the police cars had no air conditioning until canines joined the forces. The police department offices didn’t get a/c until the computer age arrived, and the machines needed to be kept from overheating.
JJ and Bill are genuinely friendly and fond of one another, in spite of the directions their two lives took.
Woody hopes to finally be on the straight and narrow after many years in and out of prison and jail. He has an incredible attitude and upbeat personality. He seems to love a life that at times can be difficult, especially since he never obtained a driver’s license or earned a high school diploma.
Bill always has had the desire to help people. He is a long-time member of the Geneva Fire Department and has served as chaplain for the department, too. He is a great example of having a commitment to serve others positively.
JJ and Bill bumped into each other a few months ago. They hugged and chatted a bit about the good ol’ days on the streets of Geneva.
JJ has donated the images he found to the GFD.