Retired fire Chief Fred Bray leaves legacy
Frederick Bray, a beloved member of the McKeesport community best known for his accomplishment as the city's first black fire chief, has died at 71.
Bray died on Friday in UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he underwent surgery on May 27. Bray's wife of 37 years, Faith Baldwin-Bray, said he remained hospitalized following a non-life-threatening procedure.
“His death was sudden,” Baldwin-Bray said. “No one saw it coming.”
Bray retired from the McKeesport Fire Department in January 2005 after nearly 38 years of service. He began his career as a firefighter in 1968 and was named chief in 1994.
“He was the first progressive fire chief we had,” firefighter T.J. Perciavalle recalled. “We would've still been fighting fires like we did 20 years before that if it wasn't for him. He was interested in new equipment, new technology and new ways of doing things.”
Chief Kevin Lust described his predecessor as a “fantastic guy, who was down to earth, graceful and proper.” He said Bray was an asset and a friend to fellow firefighters.
“The older guys probably treated him as their own son, and for the younger guys, he was like a father figure,” Lust said. “If we had problems, including myself, he would tell us how to deal with it, whether it was something on the job or something in our personal lives.”
Deputy Chief Chuck Margliotti described Bray as a dedicated fireman and good chief.
“His efforts were always directed to the safety and well-being of the men of our department,” Margliotti said. “Our city should be proud of his accomplishments and his family can cherish the legacy he left.”
Bray was one of a handful of black firefighters to serve in McKeesport's department since its formation in 1885, and the only black man to be named chief.
State Sen. James R. Brewster, who served as mayor during Bray's time as chief, said Bray's legacy always will be valued.
“There was an awful lot to be done in this town at that time,” Brewster said. “Fred brought stability, strength and leadership to the McKeesport Fire Department. His demeanor and personality led that department subtly in the right direction when we needed it most.”
Retired police Chief Ron Willard, who came up through the city's police force as Bray worked his way up to leading the fire department, said he's never seen anyone else take on an important role with such finesse.
“Freddie was the most mild-mannered guy I knew who worked for this city,” Willard said. “He was so pleasant. He just had that personality. I never saw him stressed out. I never saw him crack under pressure on the job. He was just so cool out there.”
Brewster offered his condolences to Bray's family, saying the public life of a firefighter and a department leader requires many personal sacrifices.
“You give a lot of your life to the community, and your family has to support that,” Brewster said. “I want (Bray's) family to understand how important he was to me as mayor and to this community.”
Baldwin-Bray said her husband never fully understood how much the community valued him.
“I'm not sure he realized how many people he touched,” she said. “I've had so many people — little boys, grown men, grown women, grandmothers — approach me. They're taking the news really hard as they are hearing about it. He was friendly with everybody. He never judged anybody. He was so fair with people. He will be greatly missed.”
Baldwin-Bray thanked Bray's best friend, Freddie Lewis, for staying by her husband's side as his health declined.
“I, of course, would like to thank all the nurses and doctors who worked tirelessly to take care of him and make him comfortable,” Baldwin-Bray said. “But a special thanks should go to Freddie Lewis for the care and friendship he gave him.”
Lewis and Bray were childhood friends who rekindled their friendship when Lewis returned home after a professional basketball career with the Indiana Pacers.
“Ever since we were about 10 years old, we had a very close friendship,” Lewis said. “We played all the sports together — baseball, football, basketball. We came up through Little League and Pony League together.”
After McKeesport Area High School, Lewis went off to college and Bray joined the Army, where he served for two years at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Bray returned to McKeesport to work in the G.C. Murphy warehouse and moved on to U.S. Steel's mill in Duquesne.
“He was one of the first African-Americans to hold that position at the warehouse and to be a millhand in Duquesne,” Baldwin-Bray said. “He did the same thing in McKeesport's fire department, and he was very proud that he could cross those barriers.”
Lewis said Bray's accomplishments were a marvel to witness.
“For one of my best friends to be doing these things, it was a great thing to watch,” Lewis said.
Bray is survived by his wife; children Felicia Bray, Frederick A. Bray Jr., Anita Baker, Houston (Shelly) Thompson, and Tevin Demery; godchildren DaMika Harper and Khalid Harper; siblings Druella Harris, Ricardo Harris and Julie Lynn Harris; special nephew James Zuzo Jr. and other nephews, nieces, cousins and extended family.
Family and friends will be received on Friday from 4-8 p.m. at New Beginnings Ministry, 705 Shaw Ave., McKeesport. A service is planned there on Saturday at 11 a.m. and will be followed by a procession through downtown McKeesport.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.