Knock with Your Elbows: A Tribute to Tripp Zanetis

That’s what you should do when you approach FDNY Engine Company 28, Ladder 11. You knock with your elbows, Tripp taught me, because you should be holding a cake from Ferrara Bakery, an Italian Pasticceria that opened in the year 1892. I wish I could remember the kind of cake that Tripp taught me to bring to Ladder 11—it was a specific kind for that firehouse where he spent more than a decade.

I was fortunate to visit the firehouse with Tripp so he could show me an urban fire department, and that visit said as much about him as it did about FDNY.  Despite Tripp’s business clothes for his summer law job, the men on duty greeted Tripp like he’d be home with them soon. There was a framed article on the wall about his service to the military. It was dinnertime, but the men on duty kept getting dispatched, leaving their communal table full of food and empty of people.  I said it was too bad they didn’t have the time to eat, but Tripp explained that dispatches, especially real fires, are what firefighters want to do. Even the big fires that Tripp saw during his years of service were not terrible, he explained, because that’s what you train for. “It’s like an argument at the Supreme Court,” he told me.  “If you get to do that, of course it’s hard, but that’s what you want to do, that’s what you’ve worked for.” The smaller problems the firefighters that night dispatched for—a natural gas line to check here, a smoking pile of garbage there—they were the part the city has to pay you to do. He taught me that the big stuff you do because if you can, you should.

Christopher Zanetis

“Tripp Zanetis is gold.” That’s how I began a recommendation letter for him. For purposes of that letter, I had gathered other details about him that I am devastated to have to put to the present use of honoring him in his absence.  I have worried for him since his graduation. It seemed to me that he was afraid to deploy again this most recent time.  When the fearless are afraid, you take notice.

Here is what I know of Tripp’s story.  He grew up in Bloomington and Carmel, Indiana, as the son of a lawyer and the grandson of a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, whom Tripp described as “the kind of man that everyone, including his grandchildren, called ‘Judge.’”  Tripp came out as gay to his family at age 15.  This was in 1995, which Tripp called “the pre-Glee era,” in which it was particularly difficult to be open.  His family, whose devastation I can feel from across the nation, was supportive of him.  God give them strength to bear this loss.

Tripp graduated cum laude at NYU in the Politics major, while holding the job-equivalent of student body president, competing on the diving team, and funding his education with operations work for nightlife venues.  He was living three blocks from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, and he volunteered at the towers’ site until midnight the day of the events.  One of few civilians who went towards the towers that night, he made himself useful to medical and rescue personnel.  This experience, which he said took months to “come to terms with,” was transformational for him.

Driven to keep showing up ready to serve, Tripp joined FDNY soon after graduating from college.  Tripp sought out placement at Ladder Co. 11 because the firehouse was still grieving the losses of seven firefighters killed during 9/11 rescue operations.  It was their service that defined his goals.  He worked several catastrophic fires in the city, and later joined a small cohort of fire marshals who work as plainclothes detectives to investigate suspicious or fatal fires.  Among his many intriguing experiences as an investigator and witness, Tripp was decorated with honors for a drug bust in a Waldorf Astoria hotel room.

In 2008, Tripp joined the Air National Guard, the Air Force component of the National Guard.  He trained to fly the Air Force’s combat (non-Geneva protected) search and rescue helicopter, and he has been deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Even before his most recent deployment, he had received four Air Medals given for combat missions.  As a National Guard pilot, he also provided domestic civilian search and rescue services to the northeastern seaboard.  During officer training school for the Air Guard, Tripp received the single Honor Graduate award for his 100-person graduating class.  He had a ten-year service commitment with the Air National Guard through 2020.

Sometimes Tripp found himself serving or flying with people who were different politically and culturally.  He learned how to work through that dissonance, seeing what was good in people.  He had become the kind of man who, I am quite sure, would have moved through danger to save the life of someone who had just insulted him with a homophobic slur.  Tripp would take that risk because he was wired for rescue, and because he believed in the capacity of people to change.  Big people should save people, he taught me, and little people sometimes need to be saved.

Tripp would want me to add that he was an early and devoted CrossFit instructor.  Given how dramatically that fact is overshadowed by the life he led, what could better capture his spunky personality and the lightness in his step?

With hardwiring for public service, the sweet energy of a puppy, and a brilliant, curious mind, Tripp was making a life that would make a difference.  He was building towards elected office, and he would have been a leader for our times.  He would have faced tricky questions about whether to serve back home or remain in New York City, a place that had first let Tripp truly be Tripp, but a place where his progressive politics would make less of a difference.

We were fortunate to have him at Stanford Law School in the class of 2017.  He was a standout not only for his writing and academic work, but for his interest and enthusiasm for the material and our community.  In spite of his military duties off campus, he worked for the Stanford Journal of International Law and provided pro-bono legal assistance through the Iraqi Refugee Assistance program.  He served in our International Human Rights Clinic to reform foreign military tribunals.  He helped run student life organizations for both veterans and LGBT students, and he became a campus celebrity for his performance and direction of the annual SLS musicals.  He spent a summer at the NATO Office of Legal Affairs, which serves the Secretary General, and another with Debovoise & Plimpton, where he was in practice after graduation.

There is much talk of students seeking out mentors in higher education.  A lesser-known fact is that faculty get to seek out mentors in higher education too.  When we are especially lucky, we find them in our students.  At Stanford Law School, I was fortunate to work with Tripp.  He will sit like a bird of accountability on my shoulder for the rest of my life.  He stands for service—the instinct to jump in to help people in need, in ways great and small, and to do it with a smile.  To his model, I can hold my own work to account:  What Would Tripp Do?   He would knock with his elbows.

Tripp Zanetis was gold.  We are richer for his life, and we owe something back for it.