HAIL TO THE CHIEF!
By Terry Artis
And then a hero comes along,
With the strength to carry on,
And you cast your fears aside,
And you know you can survive,
So when you feel like hope is gone,
Look inside you and be strong,
And you'll finally see the truth,
That a hero lies in you... Mariah Carey
It is a documented fact that most young boys, at some point in their early years, wish to be a fireman when they grow up. This is likely because of the heroics that are envisioned when young men think of the job of firefighting. It is a profession that calls for an incredible level of bravery and devotion to humanity. Let's face it, when you sum it up, the men and women who are America's firepersons are just plain heroes.
This article is about a man whose heroics went far beyond his firefighting and leadership of his department. This is an incredibly brave man who stood on the principles of fairness and equal opportunity for all in the SLFD and was eventually made to retire for his stance. He is one of the most significant figures of modern St. Louis history. This is an overview of our hero, Sherman George, the City of St. Louis' first Black Fire Chief.
Born in New Madrid, Missouri, January 29, 1944, Sherman was the 3rd of 12 children - 8 boys and 4 girls. "It was amazing that neither my mother or my father had a high school education," said George, "but my mother preached the value of a good education and 10 of the 12 have graduated college and some of us have post graduate courses."
The Chief began his education in Catholic grade school at Holy Ghost, which is now Visitation - Holy Ghost. From there he attended Sumner High School. "One of the lowest moments in my life was allowing some people to talk me into getting into a fight with a guy and I was expelled from Sumner." It was a lesson well learned for Sherman as he uses it when he talks to all of his kids, nieces, nephews and others about peer pressure from personal experience. Sherman went on to and graduated from O'Fallon Technical High School.
Sherman George received his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO and Military Police training in Fort Gordon, GA. He was due to ship out to Germany but dislocated his elbow during a Judo class and he was sent to Camp Pickett, VA. During his stay at Pickett, the 11th Armored Calvary had come to the base to train before duty in Vietnam. "By this time I was well aware of Vietnam, because of the news of people being killed everyday." Soon Sherman's MP Company received orders to ship out to 'Nam. "They didn't ship everyone per se, they needed 2 of us. It was weird, because there were two guys in the company that were different; me who's Black and an Asian colleague and we were the 2 that were selected. I don't know what that was about," George said with a chuckle.
Chief George said that the reality of Vietnam sank in on his first day in the country. He was checking in at a Red Cross medical station to be sure that his records were straight and near the tent there were a number of body bags. "They must have just had a battle and I just thought, wow this is the real deal. No matter what happens, I may not get out of this alive. I realized at that time how fragile life really is." He spent 10 1/2 months in South Vietnam until he was due to get out of the Army, returning home in June of 1967. He went back to work at McDonnell Aircraft, but found that he didn't like what he was doing anymore. "The money was good, but I just knew that I had to make a change."
A friend of the Chief, Victor Taylor, urged Sherman to join the Fire Department. "I first told him that I don't want to be a fireman, it's too dangerous." Victor brought him an application and had him fill it out and turn it in. A couple of weeks later, Sherman took the written test and passed. He was called to take the physical endurance test and passed that as well. Sherman George took a pay cut from his McDonnell salary and was hired as a St. Louis City Firefighter in 1967.
Because of a lawsuit over unfair testing in 1978, Sherman was promoted to Fire Captain. "They called us the Dirty Dozen. There were 12 Blacks and 12 Whites promoted." George, at that time, was the youngest Captain in the St. Louis Fire Department. He had asked for a transfer to Engine Company #10 on Kennerly and Whittier. "I felt that I could do the most good serving the people right there in my community. They transferred me and that was the most enjoyment that I had in my whole career."
During that time, Engine Co. 10 fought more fires than any company in the city. Sherman was a Captain in a neighborhood where he was helping people. "The people knew and respected their firefighters and the firefighters knew and respected those that they served. That was back then and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience."
George took the test for Battalion Chief in 1985. The new Battalion Chiefs, which included George, were promoted on May 13, 1986. At that time, Black Battalion Chiefs comprised about 50% of the promotion. "That was because, at that time they had a test that measured not only if you could circle a, b, c or d, but it also tested your skills and ability."
During the same period of time Chief George took the position of Chief Instructor for the St. Louis Fire Department. He realized that there would be a lot of pressure with the position, but there had never been a Black Chief Instructor. His wife, Catherine, his family and fellow Black firefighters urged him to take it, because "it was the right and best thing for him to do." It was a great opportunity and Chief George made a difference.
The Chief explained that there used to be a training schedule that would consist of: 1). Ladders, 2). Ropes, etc. He always used to wonder what they were going to do specifically. He remembers that it wasn't really training as much as a system of making trainees "look bad." "The ropes training consisted of instructors saying 'you tie a bowling knot and you tie a becket bend.' When the trainees did them wrong the instructors would say 'that's not how you do it, this is how.'" The Chief always though that if he were ever promoted, he would change that method. And he did. He wrote lesson plans that trained the entire St. Louis Fire Department, which at the time was over 700 men. He based the methodology on his Army training. "My Army training was very clear. It explained that 'you will disassemble and reassemble the M - 16 in the proper manner and this is how it is done.' It made sense to me, so that's how I approached training firefighters."
In 1999 there were three candidates for Chief of the St. Louis Fire Department and they were all three Black. Sherman never set out to be Chief. As he spoke throughout our interview, I realized that his quest was to always do what was right and work hard in whatever he did. On November 23, 1999 Sherman George became the First Black Chief of the St. Louis Fire Department.
When the Chief speaks about the events that led up to his 2007 demotion and subsequent decision to retire, it is with no anger or animus. It was his approach to speaking about it that made me realize that I was in the presence of one of the most decent human beings that I had ever had the pleasure of getting to know. The Chief stated it simply. He had objected to the results of a test that was used over his suggestion to personnel to use any of the eight tests out of ten choices that he felt would render the most qualified candidates for promotion. There were two tests that he felt were insufficient in rendering fair assessments and one of these two was the test that was used by personnel. Chief George refused to make promotions based on the results of that test.
St. Louis' mainstream media painted a picture of a defiant man, who refused to do what he was told by his superiors. To believe this, one would have to negate everything that Chief George did over his lifetime. He always followed orders to the letter and did what was right. In this case, he wasn't refusing a valid order. An Appellate Court ruling stated that the Fire Chief has the unfettered authority to make or not make promotions. The decision was appealed by the city to the state supreme court and they refused to hear it. The decision to make promotions was Chief Sherman George's and his alone.
Most everyone remembers the battles in the media and how dignified Sherman George remained through a time that would have pushed most beyond the limits. I, myself, was truly grateful for the St. Louis American Newspaper who pushed back with truth and facts against what was a period of the most irresponsible media coverage that I have ever witnessed.
In 2007, Sherman George, St. Louis' first Black Fire Chief, a dignified man - who stood on the principles of what he believed was right, fair and provided the most balanced opportunities for all people - retired after being demoted by the newly appointed Public Safety Director, Charles Bryson. Forty years of exemplary service and dedication to the SLFD and 63 years of a life lived in service to people and doing right by all was bumped but not steered off course.
During the interview the Chief looked good, sounded good and everyone who recognized him shook his hand, hugged him or wished him well. Like most of us realize about firefighters, it's an occupation that we would consider heroic. Chief George takes that standard to a much higher level.
In an example of the kind of humble man that he is, he said, "Deputy Fire Chief Charles Coyle is my hero. He stood by me when most would not have and when he knew that it could have been very bad for him. He's a good man." All that I could think was, "Wow!"