Firefighting pioneer, William “Jay” Carpenter, dies at 79

When he showed up for his first day of work for the Prince George’s County, Maryland Fire Department on Nov. 06, 1967 – William “Jay” Carpenter had no idea that he was making history. “He joined because the salary was better than what he was previously earning as a postal courier,” says his former wife, Via Carpenter.  A year earlier, his infant daughter, Sherry, died of crib death. “The emergency people couldn’t do anything to save her and something about her passing inspired Jay to want to help other people in distress,” Via adds. “For years, he carried a little picture of Sherry in his wallet.”

 “He was among the first group of African American fire fighters that were hired by the PGFD career service,” says Tom Breen, retired PG County assistant fire chief, who knew Carpenter since 1972. “Others such as Luther Crutchfield, Leonard Lewis, and Bob Dorsey were hired just months prior to Jay’s appointment.”

What separated Carpenter from that first group of fire fighters was that he kept taking the sergeant’s exam with the hope of ascending the corporate ladder. “I used to help him with his homework,” Via says. “He was so smart. He passed that test the first time he took it, but they wouldn’t promote him because he was black.”

Carpenter once asked Prince George’s County’s Citywide Fire Chief, Lawrence R. Woltz, why he was never promoted despite passing the tests, and  he remembered Woltz saying, “That’s just the way things happen.” However, he eventually became  the first African American eligible for promotion to sergeant in the history of the department. After years of risking his life as a firefighter, he graduated to sergeant, paramedic, and detail officer within the department. He finally retired as a Lieutenant / Acting Captain in 1992 after 25 years of service.

Carpenter passed away Feb. 9, at the Calvert County Nursing Center in Prince Fredrick, Maryland of a COVID-related heart attack at the age of 79. 

A former Fairmont Heights High school basketball star in the 1950s (his name often appearing in The Washington Post’s sports pages), Carpenter never went pro because of the obstacles black players faced in the late 1950s. After serving time in the U.S. Army and a short stint with the U.S Postal service, he found his footings within the fire department. “When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at the Chapel Oaks Fire Department and I saw my father drive that big, long truck with ease, “ says his son, Bill. “It was wild that one man could steer that huge machine. I was always in awe of him and what he could do.”

In his retirement, Carpenter sold real estate for Long & Foster and worked for The Wall Street Journal for a time. He was a big fan of Doo Wop and `50s era music. He was an occasional guest DJ on  Raymond “More Better Man” Woods’ Saturday afternoon oldies but goodies radio program on Radio One’s WOL 1450 AM  in the early 1990s. 

In 2017, he was honored by the African American Fire Fighters Historical Society at its seventh annual salute banquet at the Vollmer Center in Baltimore.

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