I got a text from my brother in-law in Connecticut on this Sunday past that Chief Stewart died. Yea, so you might ask. What does that have to with you down there on the Eastern Shore of Maryland? Well Pilgrim, listen up, as John Wayne used to say.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been around the block a few times during this life, on this sphere spinning around and around every 24 hours. One of those many blocks encompassed a brief stop as a Firefighter with the Hartford, CT Fire Department. That would have been over 40 years ago. I was a young and very impressionable husband and father of three at the time.
After my initial training I was assigned to a Ladder truck, Truck 1, located at 250 Pearl Street. We had to share our house with an Engine co, a Deputy Chief, and the administrative arm of the Department. This was the Headquarters for the Hartford Fire Department, The Chiefs home. We were smack dab in the middle of downtown Hartford.
There was a fair amount of civil unrest going on in those days, the late 60’s and early 70’s. There were riots in 1969 and 1970. Many cases of arson kept the fire department busy and this writer wondering what he signed up for while rocks and bottles were thrown when responding to an alarm. On occasions shots were fired, perhaps I should return to the Marine Corps so I could shoot back I often thought.
Hartford was founded in 1637, one of our country’s oldest cities. At one time it was also the richest city in the United States. Today Hartford has gone the way of many early U.S. cities, with population decline and unemployment incline.
With social unrest growing in the late 60’s and 70’s the Fire Department appointed a young Lieutenant, John B. Stewart Jr. to head it’s Community Relations unit. The young Lieutenant would rise through the ranks and ultimately become the Department’s Chief and first African American Chief in New England in 1980. The chef would lead the department for 12 years and ultimately retire In June of 1992. The chief would get into politics and ultimately become Council Majority Leader in Hartford.
I would apply for a position and be accepted into the Community Relations Unit late in 1971. Along with Nelson Carter and Cecil Alston we would carry out the mission of the Unit. Educational programs were conducted in the entire K-12 school system, both public and private schools. The department would sponsor two midget football teams and administer a summer sprinkler program throughout the city. We would serve on numerous organization’s boards as public safety representatives.
Much of what the fire department accomplished community wide, became reality with input and financial aide from the Insurance companies that called Hartford home. John Stewart was responsible for much of this joint camaraderie between the city, fire department and insurance industry.
For the remainder of my time with the department, John Stewart would become a friend and mentor to me while working under his tutelage. To this date I shall be ever grateful for having spent time learning and growing as a firefighter and person. Compassion and empathy to those we served dictated that all would be ok. John Stewart lived those traits and exhibited them in his daily actions. From those actions and his leadership, I learned so much.
I would not make a career of the fire service. I would ultimately resign my appointment as a firefighter when I was accepted into the State Police Academy in 1973. Deep down, since an early age in New Jersey, I always wanted to be a State Trooper. John Stewart encouraged me to apply and wrote a recommendation for me during the application process. John Stewart would be there the night I graduated from The State Police Academy.
The Hartford Courant newspaper would report on the death of Chief Stewart in it’s October 20, 2015 edition. The Chief’s obituary can be found at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/hartfordcourant/obituary.aspx?n=john-b-stewart&pid=176151324
After my retirement from The State Police Department my wife and I would retire to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. For ten years our home served as a bed and breakfast for travelers. Two of our many guests were the Chief and his wife Gladys. We were honored to have them share our home and continue our long friendship.
A time remembered from long ago is: We were having incidents of small fires in abandoned buildings close to a housing project. The time of the incidents was generally when the youth of the area would be heading home from school. The Chief decided we should stake out one of those vacant buildings one day. Remember now, we were firefighters. We were not police, no guns, handcuffs, powers of arrest or any of those protective measures that come to one in such positions. Just two fools who might catch a Juvenile Delinquent in action. At least that was my take on this adventure.
We would get to the selected location 15 minutes prior to the local Middle School dismissal for the day. There were two stairwells in this old warehouse where we would eventually await any comers. The building was at least three stories tall and half a football field long. We would wait out of sight by a window and watch, should we see any youth approaching from the direction of the school we would hide under the stairwells. At least that was the Chiefs plan. He was not worried about any physical encounter he assured me.
I told the chief I was going to check out the rest of the building, just to make sure we didn’t already have any company in the building. Looking back at this late date, what would I have done if encountered someone? I remember leaving the Chief at the window, walking to the far staircase and going to the 2nd and 3rd floors. With all being secure and no company located, I descended the staircase closest to where I had left the Chief by the window. As I descended the stairs, they creaked with the age of many years of use. When I had vision of the window where the Chief had been, he was gone. I paused and looked around.
I took the remaining steps slowly, one step at a time, creak, creak, creak. Suddenly, as I reached the bottom landing, I was startled. The Chief sprung from beneath the stairwell with a six foot piece of old 2×4 in his hands, holding it above his head in a threatening manner. I saw relief in his eyes as he recognized me. I said to him “and you’re not worried about any physical encounters.”
It was not long after that experience that I applied to the Connecticut State Police.
Hartford Connecticut has lost a man who always lived with the cities best interest in his heart.
To all the Stewart family, please accept our condolences for your loss.
I hadn’t heard of John B. Stewart Jr. until reading your post, but I admire his lifetime of service. He sounds like exactly the sort of person that the world could do with a great many more of.
He was that. Interestingly, in my career with the State Police I again got to work for a another wonderful person. He went on to become the first African American Colonel of a State Police Department. His name, Joseph Perry.