John T. O'Mailey

The Baltimore Sun

John T. O'Mailey, a retired firefighter who spent decades as secretary of the Baltimore City Fire Department's board and was an early advocate of hiring African-American firefighters, died of cancer Tuesday at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The longtime Belair-Edison and Towson resident was 91.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Llewelyn Avenue, among other East Baltimore addresses, he attended City College for a year before dropping out to take a job. He attended night school and later earned a General Education Development certificate.

"It took me four years to finish two years of high school, but it was worth it," he told an Evening Sun reporter in 1954.

One Sunday in 1935, he heard that the Fisher Body plant on Broening Highway was hiring. "He was first in line at 4 p.m. and waited through the night," said a son, Dennis O'Mailey of Kingsville. "Many hundreds of out-of-work men eventually joined the line. In the morning, the hiring rep announced that no one would be hired that day."

Mr. O'Mailey then walked to a Navy recruiting office on Howard Street because he had no money for streetcar fare. He tried to enlist, took a physical exam but was turned down.

In midafternoon, Mr. O'Mailey returned to the auto body plant and found the hiring representative. He explained that he had stood in line all night. The hiring rep told him to take a physical and gave him a job.

Mr. O'Mailey was a General Motors welder until late 1941, when he joined the Baltimore City Fire Department at a busy post, No. 4 Truck Company, McCulloh and Preston streets.

In a 1981 Evening Sun column, he recalled his first day on the job many years earlier, when a lieutenant ordered him to "Just hold on" as the fire engine pulled off. He recalled buying his own uniform, helmet and boots.

In 1943, Mr. O'Mailey went into the Army, rose to the rank of corporal and was assigned to assist a small-arms instructor, a sergeant who traveled from camp to camp. Mr. O'Mailey was a second lieutenant when he was discharged from the service.

He returned to his old job after the war and served as a lieutenant at 26 Truck on Bowleys Lane and as a captain at the Fire School, where his World War II instructional training proved an advantage.

In 1954, at age 38, he won the job of secretary of the board of the Baltimore City Fire Department and held the position until he retired in 1981. Among other duties, he prepared budgets and was overseer for 62 buildings, fireboats and ambulances.

"He was a fair-minded man," said veteran real estate broker James Crockett, who is president of the Board of Fire Commissioners and who also served in the Fire Department in the 1950s and 1960s. "He opened the doors to black firefighters and assisted them with taking the tests required of the job."

Mr. Crockett said his fire class of 1954 had 10 African-American members and that over the years, the number increased, thanks to Mr. O'Mailey's efforts.

About 10 years ago, Mr. O'Mailey and his wife, the former Genevieve Russell, entered Oak Crest Retirement Community in Parkville. His wife's health began to fail and she went into its adjacent nursing home.

He "announced to the nurses that he was taking her out to go home with him. They told him that he couldn't do that unless he got permission from the doctor. He said, 'Watch me,' dressed her, packed up her belongings and took her home to their apartment, where they lived happily and productively for another 2 1/2 years," his son said.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the chapel at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, 200 E. Padonia Road.

In addition to his son, survivors include another son, Dr. Jack O'Mailey of Lewiston, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 62 years died in 2001.

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