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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Leonard A. Lewis

WHERE ARE THEY NOW:  Leonard A. Lewis

BY: Diane V. Cunningham, Public Information Office, 301-883-5222

On September 16, 1967, Leonard A. Lewis became the first African-American career firefighter to enter the Prince George’s County Fire Department.  He was assigned to the Chillum-Adelphi Fire Station 34, where he spent 10 years before being transferred into the Bureau of Fire Inspections.  Prior to obtaining paid status, Lewis was a volunteer firefighter at Chapel Oaks Fire Station 38.

Leonard A. Lewis February 2012.
(Photo by Diane V. Cunningham)
Fire Fighter Lewis entered the Fire Department at a time when the racial climate was still quite harsh.  Despite the passing of The 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited discrimination in employment and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “an entangling web of legislation continued to bind African Americans to second class citizenship.”  As such, it is not inconceivable that he may have experienced racial tension within the Department.  When asked about this, Lewis stated, “While I observed the occurrence of racial prejudice in some of the fire stations, I personally was not directly victimized by racism.”  He credits this in part to being assigned to what he referred to as an “elite” fire station where that type of behavior was not tolerated.

During his tenure with the Fire Department, Inspector Lewis was also a Training Center Instructor at the University of Maryland.  For approximately 10 years, he taught on the subject of structural fires.  He was later requested to teach at the National Fire Academy in Emmittsburg; however, being close to retirement, he declined.  By this time, feeling he had been blessed with a rich and full career doing something he loved, Fire Inspector Lewis was ready to go.

In talking with some of the individuals who worked with Leonard Lewis, the reports were similar.  By all accounts, he was one of the best.  One individual described him as being small in stature, but a giant in his area of expertise.  Being the meticulous man that he is, he could be counted on to strictly enforce the county codes and laws.  Nevertheless, he always gave his external customers information that would ultimately assist them with meeting code standards.  Because of his willingness to share the wealth of knowledge he had acquired over the years, Lewis was highly respected by both his peers and builders alike. 

When asked about some of the highlights of his career, Lewis’ countenance became like that of child on Christmas morning.  He adamantly declared that he recruited George Grooms, the Fire Department’s first African American fire investigator and bomb technician.  He shared with me a little known fact, which was that Bernard Hoffler designed the PGFD insignia currently displayed on the Department’s apparatus.  He proudly boasted of having written the program for the placement of telephones in the Departmental vehicles.  “Tommy Daniels and I were the first to have telephones in our cars,” said Leonard.  

Inspector Lewis was responsible for training those he referred to as Bureau of Fire Prevention “rookies.”  He stated, “I trained some of the best, including now retired Special Hazards Inspector Roger Leak; retired Fire Inspector Tommy Daniels; retired Fire Investigator George Nutter; retired Fire Fighter Bernard Hoffler; and current Deputy Fire Chief Scott Hoglander.”  Suddenly, he starts grinning from ear-to-ear and says, “I even trained Larry Sedgwick and Eugene Jones, both of whom became Fire Chiefs!”

When asked what advice he would give to a class of recruits, Leonard replied, “I would tell them to learn to take orders, as everyone has to.  Remember that you are public servants, and providing the best possible service to the citizens of Prince George’s County should always be your first priority.  Wear your equipment when responding on an emergency; that is why you have it.  The order of the day is safety first, not how much heat you can take.  Fire will make you a hero, but not every hero lives to talk about it.”   

Leonard Lewis did some consulting when he first retired from the Fire Department but is now completely retired.  “I start my day at the local 7-Eleven, where I enjoy good conversation and good coffee with some of the neighborhood guys.  I love working in my yard and spending time with my grandsons,” says the 78-year-old Lewis.

Fire Inspector Lewis has three daughters, Brenda Carolyn, and LaVerne.  He and daughter Brenda reside in Fort Washington, Maryland.  He believes “the fire service is doing a ‘helluva’ job in Prince George’s County.” 

Personnel from the Bureau of Fire Inspections in the late 1970's.
Thanks to Tommy Daniels for the photo.

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