Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., one of the city's first African-American firefighters, who rose to the department's highest rank, is expected to announce his retirement today after 47 years of city service at Mayor Martin O'Malley's weekly news conference this morning.
Williams, 69, started as a Baltimore firefighter in 1954 and has served under nine mayors as an administrator in several departments, including public works.
He became the city's first black fire chief in 1992, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke appointed him to head the department. Williams led the fire service through a tumultuous eight years that included widespread budget reductions, staff cuts and station closings.
During that time, the city set record lows in the number of fire deaths - 22 in 1996. In addition, the number of fires declined by more than half to 2,367 in 1999, results credited to Williams' fire prevention programs that included a much-publicized city giveaway of 70,000 smoke detectors.
"He is one of the quiet heroes of the city," said Schmoke, now a downtown lawyer. "He is a personal embodiment of the successes of civil rights laws in our nation, and it's quite a story."
In recent years, Williams gained fame as the father of nationally known television talk-show host Montel Williams, who lauded his father for instilling discipline and a love for books in him.
Reached at his office late yesterday afternoon, the elder Williams said the time seemed right to step down as the head of the 1,600-member Fire Department. He intended to resign a year ago but remained at the request of O'Malley, he said.
"I've got 47 years," Williams said when asked why he was leaving. "And I feel pretty good about the things I've accomplished."
After moving with his parents from New York to Sandtown as a teen-ager, Williams took several jobs in the early 1950s, ranging from playing stand-up bass at bars on The Block to operating a streetcar. In 1954, he joined the second group of African-Americans accepted into the city fire academy.
John T. Murray, a former classmate who retired 14 years ago as a captain, recalled that time yesterday.
"Herman said, 'One day I'm going to be chief of the fire department,'" Murray said, chuckling. "We all laughed, but he knew from the day he walked in."
Murray also recalled how the class instructor refused to have his picture taken with the academy graduates because they were black. Williams spent 26 years with the department, serving out of the Curtis Bay station and rising to battalion chief before heading the department's Fire Prevention Bureau.
"He went through the ranks, and he knew the department from the bottom up," Murray said.
Frustrated by what he believed to be a lack of opportunity to advance in the department, Williams joined the public works department as the top assistant to director Francis W. Kuchta. In 1988, Schmoke tapped him as the city transportation director, noting his administrative skills.
"He's a leader and a gentleman," said Assistant Fire Chief Carl E. McDonald. "He treats everybody fairly and looks you in the eye."
When Chief Peter J. O'Connor stepped down after 12 years in 1992, Schmoke made Williams' dream come true, breaking a string of Irish-American fire chiefs in the city.
Since that time, Williams has been in the delicate position of trying to streamline fire services in a city that has lost 10,000 citizens in the past decade while trying to maintain safety and build public support for the mayor.
"He stayed at this difficult job because I begged him," O'Malley said yesterday.
"There are few employees who have given as much to this city as Herman Williams."
His actions - from closing fire stations on a rotating basis to the permanent shutdown of seven units in the summer - put Williams at odds routinely with city firefighter unions, whose leaders often criticized him.
Yesterday, however, a union officials extended best wishes. "It has always been a love-hate relationship with union officials and fire chiefs," said Rick Schluderberg, acting president of the Baltimore Firefighters Association. "He had to live within his budgets, and we didn't always agree but I respect him as a person."
Williams said in his retirement he intends to spend more time with his wife of 50 years, Marjorie, as well as pursue his golf game and love of cooking.
"I worked for the citizens of Baltimore, and they deserved the best they could get for their money," Williams said. "That may sound corny, but that's me."