Around McKeesport, Frederick Bray was known as “Freddie Fire,” for his profession and for his passion.
“He used to say he had a fire in his heart to be a fireman,” said Ed Harmon, McKeesport’s deputy fire chief. “You either had it, or you didn’t.”
As McKeesport’s first African-American fire chief, Mr. Bray revolutionized the city’s fire department from his appointment in 1994 until his retirement in 2005. He died Friday of complications from a pulmonary embolism. He was 71.
Kevin Lust, who succeeded him as fire chief, said Mr. Bray always prioritized the safety of the community and the firefighters. From installing radios in the trucks to getting smoke detectors donated from the health department and set up in local homes, Mr. Bray always was searching for ways to use technology to make the community safer.
“We were still caught in the old times, and Freddie was trying to bring us into the new,” Mr. Lust said.
Faith Baldwin-Bray, Mr. Bray’s wife, said one of her husband’s most well-known projects was a river rescue program he started on a $1 budget.
Mrs. Baldwin-Bray said that when the Allegheny County Delta Team, a public maintenance group, disbanded, leaving behind a county-owned boat, her husband spoke to then-Mayor Joseph Bendel and bought the vessel for a dollar.
Mr. Harmon said that when the Youghiogheny River flooded Harrison Village Apartments in 1997, that river rescue boat evacuated more than 80 people trapped in their apartments, likely saving lives.
“They were surrounded by 6 to 8 feet of water,” Mr. Harmon said. “Keep in mind, too, these were cold temperatures when the river let loose: 20 to 30 degrees out.”
Mrs. Baldwin-Bray said her husband was 5 years old when he first visited the McKeesport fire station and decided that he wanted to be a fireman, despite some firefighters telling him it would never happen because of his race.
“When people would tell him he couldn’t do it, he did it,” she said.
After high school, Mr. Bray served three years in the Army and returned to McKeesport with an honorable discharge. Back home, he was one of the first African-Americans to work at G.C. Murphy warehouse, and in 1968 he became the second African-American that the McKeesport fire department hired.
Working his way up the ranks, he continued to face discrimination.
“At that time, they weren’t receptive to blacks,” Mrs. Baldwin-Bray said. “That motivated him to constantly attend fire seminars and training to become very knowledgeable about the job.”
Freddie Lewis, a childhood friend who rekindled their friendship after returning to McKeesport in the past decade, attributed Mr. Bray‘s perseverance to his long-held desire to help the community as a fireman.
Mr. Lewis, who played professional basketball player with the Indiana Pacers, said Mr. Bray could be pretty competitive, whether on or off the baseball field or basketball court.
“He worked hard at everything he did,” Mr. Lewis said. “He encouraged me so much to go on and play basketball. He was just so instrumental in the things that I set out to do in life.”
Mr. Lust said that his predecessor’s legacy remains strong at the fire station, where they’re following his forward thinking and installing new computer systems.
And Mr. Bray’s motto — loyalty and honesty — still remains painted on the trucks.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Bray is survived by his children, Felicia Bray of State College, Frederick A. Bray Jr., Anita Baker and Houston Thompson of Germantown, Md., and Tevin Demery of Duquesne; his sisters, Druella Harris of McKeesport and Julie Lynn Harris Walker of White Oak; and his brother, Ricardo Harris of McKeesport.
Friends will be received from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at New Beginnings Church, 705 Shaw Ave. in McKeesport. Services will be at 11:00 a.m. Saturday, and interment will be at 1:30 p.m. Monday in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil.
The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Jerusalem Baptist Church, 12 S. Fifth St., Duquesne, PA 15110.
Brett Sholtis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.