Saturday, 14 November 2015


 BLACK   SOCIAL                      HISTORY                                                                             Friends and Colleagues   Remember Ex-Fire Chief John B. Stewart: 'He Opened A Lot Of Doors'

Former Hartford Fire Chief John Stewart oversaw the hiring of the first women and Hispanics in the department
HARTFORD — An enormous American flag swayed in front of Faith Congregational Church on Tuesday evening, hoisted from the ladder of a city firetruck to honor former Hartford Fire Chief John B. Stewart Jr., a man mourners called a trailblazer and mentor for countless public servants who tried to follow in his footsteps.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be standing here talking to you right now," said New Haven Fire Chief Allyn R. Wright, who arrived in uniform as scores of people paid their respects in the opening hour of Stewart's wake.
Stewart, Hartford's first black fire chief and one of the first African Americans to head a professional fire department in New England, died Saturday at age 85. His funeral is Wednesday.
Wright, who is African American, said he knew of Stewart when he first became a firefighter in the early 1970s, and "I always tried to emulate him as I moved up the ranks."
They became close in recent years, and in 2014, when Wright became fire chief in New Haven, he said he got this advice from Stewart:
"Keep the path, stay straight and don't show any favoritism to anybody. Just do the job that needs to be done and I'll be OK."
Former Hartford Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts described Stewart as an "ambassador" for the city who entered local politics after his retirement because he loved Hartford.
"Chief Stewart, to me, was a true pioneer," Roberts said as cars and fire vehicles lined the block and filled parking lots near the Main Street church.
When Roberts became police chief in 2006, Stewart called him over to his house and advised him on "how to navigate the politics of city hall. He told me I had to calm down and I had to be more tactful when I'm addressing the city council, because I used to go back and forth with the city council in budget hearings, and I had a tendency to kind of speak my mind.
"... He said, 'You've got to slow it down.' He shared his wisdom with me," Roberts recalled. "Everybody that's in public service owes a debt of gratitude. ... He opened a lot of doors. ... Every young person needs to know about Chief Stewart."
Stewart, a North End native, was responsible for the hiring of a large number of black firefighters during his 12 years as chief and was succeeded in the position by several other African Americans.
But Stewart also made sure to bring others along, hiring the first women in the department and drastically increasing the number of Hispanic firefighters after the death of 12-year-old Julio Lozada in a building collapse in 1979.
Lozada's death was deemed a preventable tragedy because rescue efforts were delayed when firefighters on the scene could not speak Spanish to communicate with residents who could not speak English.
"John had a vast knowledge of his own community, but he also established a rapport in our community," said Eugenio Caro Sr., a former city police officer and city councilman, who came to Hartford from Puerto Rico.
Caro met Stewart in the late 1960s when both were assigned to improve community relations for their respective departments.
"He was a lieutenant and I was a patrolman and we became friends," said Caro, 80, adding that Stewart, who was a real estate broker at the time, also sold him a house.
That friendship would be crucial when the two were assigned to respond to the riots in the North End during the turbulence in the city between 1967 and 1971.
"We really developed a bond," Caro said. "We had to prevent people from getting involved and pick up the pieces in the aftermath."
In a 1992 interview with The Courant shortly after Stewart announced his retirement after a 40-year career that included his becoming the first black firefighter to be promoted and then the first to make lieutenant and captain, he talked about his journey.
"When I started in the fire department they told me I was lucky and that I'd never become an officer," he said in the interview. "I am proof that Hartford, Connecticut, represents the American dream."
Stewart's groundbreaking appointment to the top job didn't come without controversy.
After his re-election in November 1979, Hartford Mayor George Athanson announced that he opposed Stewart for chief because he was too closely allied with former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone during a September primary. Athanson was accused of racial discrimination and withdrew his opposition following the creation of a new coalition of black and Hispanic Democrats in January 1980.
The city administration decided to require written, rather than the usual oral, exams for the chief's position for the more than 60 applicants for the job. Several community groups complained that it was being instituted because a black man, Stewart, was a candidate. The city administration changed course and went back to oral exams.
Following his retirement, Stewart worked in real estate and economic development primarily in the North End, before becoming a city councilman, rising to the rank of majority leader. Caro served on the council with him and said Stewart's ability to reach across ethnic lines helped in the political arena as well.
"He was a bridge-maker. People knew he was honest in his commitment," Caro said. "Whites, blacks and Hispanics trusted the man."
Thirman Milner, who became Hartford's first black mayor the year after Stewart became chief, said Tuesday that Stewart's legacy will be his determination to make the Hartford Fire Department reflect the community it served.
"He made it more diverse than it ever had been," said Milner, 81. "His whole thing was looking at diversity."
Milner, who maintained a friendship with Stewart in later years, said the chief's goals of diversifying the department were met with resistance but it didn't deter him.
"John always demonstrated leadership," Milner said.
Caro, who also remained close with Stewart and frequently lunched with him in recent years, said he will miss those meetings, which often turned into reminiscing about how they got things done by working together.
"He was a great man and a great friend," Caro said.
For Steve Harris, former city firefighter and city councilman, Stewart represented a father figure.
"He is the reason I'm the person I am today," said Harris, a North End community activist.
Harris said two things made Stewart stand out from the crowd: He gave of himself to everyone and he always found the good in everyone.
"There was such a dignity about him," Harris said.
Stewart's funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Faith Congregational Church, followed by burial at Spring Grove Cemetery.