As he sat before a rapt audience of second-graders, it was pretty hard for Bob Stec not to make an impression.
His crisp, navy blue uniform decorated with bright gold buttons and shiny badges, as well as his polished, black patent-leather shoes, had a mesmerizing effect on the wide-eyed youngsters who hung on every word he spoke.
A tiny hand went up with a question.
"Why did you wear your uniform today?" a little girl asked.
"This is my dress uniform," offered the mild-mannered visitor. "We get to wear it on special occasions."
Tuesday's visit to Chocachatti Elementary School provided just the opportunity for the 48-year-old chief of the New York Fire Department's 20th Battalion to don his very best. For him, it was a chance to at long last personally meet the children he considers to be heroes.
For the past six months, Stec has been corresponding with the 24 students in Renee Golz's class. Their simple, heartfelt messages
of support and friendship that arrived in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center proved to be a healing salve during an emotionally devastating time.
But on this morning, it was Stec who was receiving the hero treatment. His young admirers regaled their honored guest with cards, flowers and gifts, and of course, plenty of hugs. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance for him and sang a patriotic song as he smiled approvingly.
"I want you to know that you're very special to me," Stec told the students. "What you did for me and everybody at our firehouse will never be forgotten."
Shortly after rescue and recovery efforts at ground zero in New York began last September, Golz's students started their letter-writing campaign in hopes that somehow the brave firefighters working in the smoking, twisted rubble would know the world was thinking about them.
The letters, which were addressed to no particular firehouse, wound up at the 20th Battalion in the Bronx on the same morning that American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a residential neighborhood in nearby Far Rockaway. Stec and his men were among the hundreds of firefighters called to fight the blaze.
"It was a one of the worst days on the job for me," said Stec. "But when I came back and started reading through those letters, it was like a breath of fresh air."
The next day, Stec wrote back, telling the students how their simple act of kindness had helped lift the spirits of the 24 men in his unit, some of whom had lost close friends in the World Trade Center collapse.
Back at Chocachatti, Golz's students were elated by Stec's response. Over the next few months, a kindred fellowship developed between the second-graders and their new-found friend. But the best was to come.
"He was so nice to us we just couldn't wait to meet him," 7-year-old Katrina Churches said of the news that Stec would vacation with his family in Florida this month.
Stec admits he was hesitant to visit the school, saying that he did not want to create a distraction from the students' busy school day. But after receiving another batch of letters on the six-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks, it made him reconsider.
"When I look back at what was caused by an act of pure evil," said Stec, pausing briefly to collect his emotions. "But what these children did for me and the other firefighters . . . that was an act of pure love."