HARTFORD — Mayor Pedro Segarra has ordered city flags be lowered to half-staff in honor of retired Hartford Fire Chief John B. Stewart Jr., a 40 year veteran of the Hartford Fire Department, who died Sunday morning.
Stewart, 85, was the first African-American fire chief in New England when he took over the department in 1980. He remained chief for 12 years before getting into city politics, and eventually becoming majority leader of Hartford City Council in 1994, serving two terms.
Stewart remained active in helping the city right up until this year.
He was recently was appointed by Mayor Pedro Segarra to lead a task force reviewing fire department procedures after the death of Kevin Bell while fighting a fire in October 2014.
Stewart's former colleagues and loved ones say he devoted his life to serving the people of Hartford.
"He loved people, he loved his city and loved his family, including his fire department family," said former Hartford Fire Chief Nelson Carter, who first met Carter in 1961 while both served on the fire department.
In a statement issued Sunday night, Segarra said Stewart overcame racial barriers to join the department in 1952.
Segarra ordered the flags left at half staff until next Sunday.
After becoming the Chief in 1980, Stewart was credited for creating a modern firefighting force, increased awareness of fire safety in the community and a more diverse department. Under Stewart, the department hired its first women, promoted its first Hispanic firefighters and greatly increased the number of blacks.
Stewart was a founding member and president of the International Association of Black Firefighters and the Phoenix Society.
"He was the most innovative chief Hartford has ever had. He wanted to integrate the department so it would reflect the community," said Former chief Carter.
Stewart graduated from Weaver High School in 1948, and joined the Hartford Fire Department in 1952. In past interviews, he recalled his father's counseling him to ``stick it out'' in the Hartford Fire Department despite the racism of the 1950s, when only six of the 600 people on the force were black.
"It was a wonderful thing to see a man work that hard, and take as many blows, and he just kept coming back for more," said Stewart's son John B. Stewart III.
Stewart served through the turbulent 1960's at a time when race riots tore apart Hartford's north-end, the neighborhood where Stewart grew up.
In 2014, Rubin Tendal wrote a biography on Stewart titled "Hard Climb Up The Ladder" -- chronicling Stewart's life and career in the fire department, and detailing his accounts of deep-seated institutional racism and segregation tactics within the fire department in the 1950's and 1960's.
Stewart was not only a firefighter, but later became the founder of his own real estate firm, Stewart Associates LLC.
Stewart went back to school at a later age, earning a bachelors degree from the University of Connecticut in 1990, at the age of 60.
"He remained driving, vigilant and vibrant--all the way to the last day," said John B. Stewart III.
Stewart is survived by his six children. His long-time wife Gladys (Strong) Stewart passed away in 2011.