Family, friends and coworkers pay last respects to Hartford Fire Chief John Stewart

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HARTFORD -- Community members gathered to say  goodbye to  John B. Stewart, Jr., a former Hartford fire chief and devoted defender of equal rights on Wednesday.

Stewart was a 40-year veteran of the fire department and died over the weekend.

His funeral services began at 11 a.m. at Faith Congregational Church, followed by a burial at Spring Grove Cemetery. The final resting place held symbolic importance for Stewart because it is the same grounds where Hartford's first black firefighter is buried. Stewart is said to be the first black fire chief in all of New England.

"The fondest memory of my cousin is the day that he was made chief of the fire department in Hartford, Connecticut," said Dennis Edney. "I had to stop my car and take pictures. I was overwhelmed," he added of Wednesday's pomp and circumstances surrounding his cousin's funeral.

photoThe services included a brief shutdown of Hartford's Main Street for a procession of flags and firefighters from the church to the cemetery across the street. Several firetrucks parked in the area, with one displaying a large American flag from its tower.

"I'm so glad that the work he did -- the people of Hartford remember," Edney said.

Donald Day, a former firefighter, felt similarly about the widespread admiration for Stewart, who he calls "his mentor."

"He wanted nothing more than for Hartford to be the best fire department in the state and he also wanted people of color to be part of that department," said Day. "He inspired me to go up the ladder in the fire department to reach elevated ranks within the fire department and had it not been for him, who knows."

Ronald Mackey, also a former firefighter, shared another story of Stewart's lasting impression.

"He's the one that opened the door and paved the way for someone like myself... allowing that black firefighters do the same thing that he was doing," he said. Mackey went on to serve as a lieutenant at Bridgeport's fire department.

Carlos Huertas, current chief of Hartford's Fire Department, said Stewart's emphasis on diversity is reflected in today's department, which employs nearly 2 dozen women.

"He truly is a fire service leader in every sense of the word: first African American chief in all of New England, first in Hartford, the first to hire women," Huertas said. "I'm a data person. You can look at the statistics. We are the most diverse fire department, not only in Connecticut, I would say in the nation...that's the legacy he leaves and it's a great legacy and I want to continue that legacy."

After serving as chief for 12 years and retiring in 1992, Stewart entered politics. He was a two-term City Council member and then became a majority leader.

He worked on various cultural projects and helped city officials up until this year, when Mayor Pedro Segarra asked Stewart to lead a task force to review the fire department procedures. The request came after the death of Kevin Bell, the Hartford firefighter who died on duty last year in October.

"We lost a good person that could help the community," said Howard Hunter, who said he knew Stewart since 1941.  "He's quite the gentleman's gentleman and not enough can be said but he's one that our youth should emulate in this society."