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‘Beautiful journey’: Charlotte Fire Department’s first African-American chief retires

Deputy Chief Pete Key cuts a cake celebrating his 41 years of service as he retired Friday at Charlotte Fire Department headquarters on Dalton Road.
Deputy Chief Pete Key cuts a cake celebrating his 41 years of service as he retired Friday at Charlotte Fire Department headquarters on Dalton Road. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The fires were bigger and hotter, Deputy Chief Howard “Pete” Key remembers of when he started working at the Charlotte Fire Department. That was back in 1977.

Now, Key will retire after more than 41 years of service — the longest tenure of any African-American at the fire department. He also was the first African-American acting fire chief and the first African-American operations chief.

Key started his career at the fire department on Aug. 24, at the station on East Boulevard across from Freedom Park.

Firefighters and police officers as well as Key’s friends and family gathered at the fire department’s headquarters Friday afternoon to celebrate his retirement.

The building was still decorated for the holidays, a Christmas tree decked out in twinkly lights and red ornaments standing in the corner. At the party, there was a Southern style buffet and two different kinds of cake — one with a toy fire truck on top.

At the event, Key told reporters that he was grateful for the “beautiful journey.” As he spoke, he stood in front of a piano-style fire engine used by a group of volunteer African-American firefighters in the late 1800s.

One of his proudest moments was at Westerly Hills Academy, an elementary school where the firefighters volunteered. During his visit, a teacher had a heart attack, and they were able to save her.

“We didn’t do it. God did it,” he said, adding that the teacher still bakes treats for them.

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Deputy Chief Pete Key cuts a cake celebrating his 41 years of service as he retired from the Charlotte Fire Department on Friday afternoon. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Capt. Dennis Gist, public relations officer for the fire department, worked with Key at the station near the airport when he was a rookie firefighter.

“He was instrumental in pushing me to do more,” Gist said, explaining how Key mentored him to help him rise through the ranks.

Gist also said that Key often did nice things for strangers without recognition.

There was a house fire right before Christmas and the family was devastated, Gist said. That’s when Key called the police department, which was hosting a toy drive, to make sure that the kids would still get presents for the holiday.

Key was the battalion chief at the fire station on Remount Road when he first me Capt. Jerry Rodgers.

Rodgers described Key as a tough, but fair, leader and a devoted mentor. “He’d stand behind you. He’d have your back,” Rodgers said.

Key said that when he leaves, he’ll miss the people the most.

Key was promoted to deputy chief in 2004. He became the first African-American acting fire chief when he served as interim chief from Sept. 1, 2017, to Apr. 30. He will retire as one of three deputy chiefs.

He also was a member of the Urban Boy Scouts Committee, United Way Crown Club and Queen City Optimist Club and an avid supporter of the Arts and Sciences Council, according to the fire department’s website.

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