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Portrait of first black firefighter in Vallejo, Calif., now part of exhibit

By J.M. Brown
Vallejo Times Herald (California)
Copyright 2006 The Times-Herald
All Rights Reserved

With the portrait of Vallejo’s first black firefighter now in place, a hero exhibit several years in the making at the city museum is complete — literally and figuratively.

On Saturday, dignitaries and friends of retired Assistant Fire Chief John H. Wells Sr. celebrated the unveiling of his portrait for the “Forged in Fire” exhibit. The stately image of the 70-year-old barrier-breaker in his dress blues set against a sunset is the final installation, but one that almost didn’t happen.

The museum’s director said plans long existed to include Wells in the exhibit, but no one could get in touch with him — although he was listed in the phone book. When former museum board member Benetta Hicks, a longtime friend of Wells, visited the exhibit in April, she noticed the glaring absence, dialed Wells up from the museum office and handed the phone to a secretary.

“How could they have the history of the fire department without having a portrait of him,” Hicks asked rhetorically Saturday. “How could you leave him out?”

“Just correct the problem,” she remembered telling the museum staff.

As the one-time barber stood near his portrait Saturday with his two grown sons watching, Wells thanked Hicks for using “her influence” to shine a light on his nearly three decades of service, which ended with his retirement in 1992.

“It’s a grand recognition for me,” he said in an interview afterward, “because the 28 years I spent on the fire service won’t go unnoticed. It makes the people aware that I existed.”

The Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum exhibit features photographs of every fire department employee and 21 other full-size portraits that include moving tributes to siblings, as well as fathers and sons, who have served. A portrait of husband-and-wife duo Leina and Monty Morris was added Saturday along with the Wells portrait.

All the work of Vallejo artist Carlo Carlucci, the exhibit will remain open until September, and will be followed by a police department tribute.

Museum director Jim Kern said Saturday that long before the fire exhibit premiered in March, planners had exchanged e-mails about acquiring a photograph of Wells so the artist would have a basis for a portrait. But “nothing came of it,” Kern said.

Kern acknowledged Saturday that Wells was listed in the Vallejo phone book, but said there were several people listed with the same name. Wells also draws a city pension and could have been reached through City Hall.

“I suppose we could have been more diligent about it,” Kern said. “It’s never been our intent to ignore him. It wasn’t certainly any intentional slight. We just weren’t able to reach him.”

By arranging for Carlucci to do the portrait, which Wells praised on Saturday, Kern said, “hopefully we made up for that.”

Single-handedly integrating the fire department during the middle of the civil rights movement was never a row Wells wanted to hoe.

A Mississippi native who came to Vallejo in 1954 to be near his sister and finish high school, Wells was a 28-year-old barber when a local minister active in civil rights recruited him for the fire department a decade later. After rebuffing the persistent pastor several times, Wells eventually gave in.

The 6-foot-3-inch father of two passed the department’s physical agility and mental aptitude tests, and got the chief’s OK after an interview. But he still didn’t really want the job.

“When the city manager called and offered me the job, I told him I need to think about it,” Wells said with a chuckle.

But the minister, H.J. Morris of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, assured Wells that firefighting would be a good career and “an important step in the civil rights movement.” Wells accepted, but still cut hair on his days off.

He rose through the ranks to become an assistant chief and completed his bachelor of arts degree from St. Mary’s College in 1990, two years before he retired. One of his sons became a Solano County probation officer, and the other is a Piedmont police officer.

Artist Carlucci said he hoped his portrait captured Wells’ achievements and tenacious but calm spirit.

“It was a pleasure to work with him and get to see his dignity, his soft-spokeness and strength,” Carlucci said.

Now complete, museum director Kern said the exhibit “shows the day-to-day commitment of firefighters and what they do for the community.”

With a great deal of publicity in recent years about the sizable cost of firefighter contracts in Vallejo, Kern said the exhibit reminds the public that regardless of politics, “when you need a firefighter, they’re there.”

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