ORANGE, NJ — The city of Orange sounded sirens in honor of former Fire Chief Rudolph Scott Thomas during his retirement ceremony from the Orange Fire Department on Saturday, Nov. 26. Joined by firefighters, family, friends and community officials, Thomas is the first African American fire chief to retire in the department’s 150-year history. Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten served as guest speaker during the event, highlighting Thomas’ service to the Orange community during his 25-year career as a local firefighter. Other esteemed guests and speakers included Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin, Fire Chief Derrick Brown and Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren.
Thomas, the third African American ever to enroll in the department, worked diligently to expand the number of African American firefighters in the city.
“It’s an honor any time we can honor someone of high esteem like this; our young generation can see what happened and celebrate history,” Wooten told the Record-Transcript, explaining that Thomas mentored the firefighters he recruited. “We all owe Thomas a lot of gratitude for his many years of service and valor.”
Thomas joined the fire department in 1969, and, during the next 20 years, he worked to recruit more than two dozen African American firefighters. His actions motivated other firefighters to follow suit and recruit Orange residents to join the department as well.
“He worked hard, mentored future firefighters and graced his community,” Brown told the Record-Transcript. “We all leave a legacy and values — Thomas’ was humility.”
A recurring theme throughout the event was the idea of witnessing history; that sentiment was expressed with great fervor by multiple speakers and attendees. Speakers stressed that the next generation should witness this moment and aspire to continue Thomas’ legacy.
“Thomas is the first African American chief to reach retirement honors in a dangerous profession,” Warren told the Record-Transcript. “At a time when he lived in an unfair system, he served and recruited with distinction. We’re living to see his legacy and honor him while he’s still here with us.”
According to Warren, Thomas helped shape the fire department. Even after leaving the role of chief, Thomas continued recruiting African American firefighters and mentoring them.
“All black firefighters are here because of him,” Warren said.
Due to Thomas’ incredible efforts and work as a firefighter, Warren declared that Nov. 26 would officially be recognized as Rudolph Thomas Day in the city of Orange.
“People did their jobs, but his seeds can be seen today; that’s why I named this day after him,” Warren said.
The ceremony brought tears to Thomas’ face and the faces of his family members in attendance.
“I’m honored and overjoyed to have a day named for me; it brings tears to my eyes,” Thomas told the Record-Transcript.
As the Orange Fire Department celebrates Thomas’ many contributions, city leaders are also looking ahead for future progress and to continue Thomas’ recruitment efforts.
“All are welcome in the fire department here in the city. The first female firefighter was sworn in during my administration,” Warren said, as an example of Orange’s continued forward momentum.
Photos by Javon Ross