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Department honors first African American firefighter

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) - Retired Fort Wayne firefighter Richard Ridley Jr. didn't know what was going on when he was told to go to the Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters union hall Wednesday afternoon.

"Very surprised. I wondered what was going on down there. It caught me by complete surprise," Ridley said.

Family, fellow firefighters and community leaders filled the room. They were all there to honor Ridley and his legacy. Ridley knew he was going to see an early preview of NewsChannel 15's special report Badge No. 210, which profiled his career and the barriers he broke down as the first African American firefighter on the department. He didn't know he was also being given the inaugural IAFF Pioneer Award.

"I'm very appreciative. I never expected anything like this," Ridley said. "If you do your best at your job, you can reach any heights. I think that what I accomplished was done just by treating people the way you want to be treated. That usually accomplishes many things. If you treat them right, they're more than likely to treat you right."

There wasn't a dry eye in the room as people shared stories about Ridley and how his accomplishments changed their lives.

"His positive attitude toward the fire service, as a representative of his family and as a leader, to me, that's what this award is representing. We wanted to recognize him for what he's done for our department and its future," Jeremy Bush, president of Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124, said.

Ridley said when he first joined the department in 1961, he was just doing his job and didn't see his journey as paving the way for future minority firefighters. He retired as a district chief in 1985.

"I didn't think about it until later when people were talking about it," he said. "I appreciate the fact that they thought it was worthwhile to honor me with this award. I didn't think I had done anything."

Chief Eric Lahey said it's important to recognize the firsts in history.

"Make them part of our recorded history so we always remember," he said. "If we can remember the issues that were faced by the firsts back then, then we can continue to fight those in the future."

Ridley will also be included in a "Hometown Heroes" mural inside the Urban League's redesigned computer lab.

Click here to see Ridley's story of breaking down barriers on the department in Badge No. 210.

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