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Robert B. Howard Jr., capped pioneering career by becoming first black to lead Buffalo Fire Dept. March 29, 1916 to April 12, 2007

Robert B. Howard Jr. of Amherst -- a trailblazer in the Buffalo Fire Department who became its first black firefighter, lieutenant, captain and finally, in 1966, commissioner -- died Thursday in the Center for Hospice & Palliative Care in Cheektowaga. He was 91.

Mr. Howard's pioneering career in the fire service almost did not happen. He first attempted to enter the police academy, but turned his attention to the Buffalo Fire Department and was assigned June 16, 1943, to Truck 3, then located at 308 Spring St.

Born in Barnesville, Ga., he moved with his family at age 6 to the Town of Tonawanda. He graduated from Kenmore High School in 1934 and attended the former Buffalo Collegiate Center for two years.

While working for the Semet Solvay Co., he married Irene W. Battle in May 1938. They had been married for 60 years when she died in 1998.

After his appointment to the Fire Department, he was named a junior captain, now known as lieutenant, in 1951. He was promoted to captain in 1960 and assigned to Engine 26 at Tonawanda Street and Progressive Avenue.

On Jan. 1, 1966, Mayor Frank A. Sedita appointed him to the top job, fire commissioner. He served throughout the Sedita administration, and retired in 1973 after 30 years with the department.

Mr. Howard was elected to the board of directors of the National Fire Protection Association in 1972 and, after retiring in Buffalo, joined the organization's staff as chief fire service specialist. He later was named a field service representative.

Mr. Howard remained an honorary member of a number of volunteer fire departments in the state and of various fire chiefs associations. He served as secretary and board member of the International Association of Fire Chief's metropolitan committee.

His many community positions at one time included membership on the Canisius College Board of Regents, Emergency Hospital's board, and the boards of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Salvation Army and Buffalo Goodwill Industries.

He was a member of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Amherst, a fourth degree member of Council 184, Knights of Columbus, and a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Council.

He is survived by a daughter, Jean M. Holland, and a brother, Dr. Keith L.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Gregory the Great Church, 200 St. Gregory Court at Maple Road.


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