Egbert Board, longtime firefighter, devoted church member, dies at 82

WHENEVER THERE was a need at the churches that were blessed to have him as a member, Egbert W. Board was there.

Not in the limelight. Not out front. He was the man behind the scenes without whom any organization suffers and a church is left with a hole in its mission.

And it was his robust bass voice that anchored the choirs he graced with his presence. Not out front. Not as a soloist. But there, holding up the structure of gospel praise.

Egbert Board, a 27-year firefighter in the city who rose to the rank of lieutenant in an era when African-Americans were an unusual sight at local fire houses, and a veritable pillar of the Baptist churches he joined, died Sunday.

He was 82 and lived in Mount Airy.

He was also a veteran of the Army Air Corps before and during the Korean War.

Egbert was chairman of the board of deacons of Second Baptist Church in Germantown. He sang in the Chancel Choir and in the choirs of other churches, as well as with the Roxborough Male Chorus.

He previously was a member of Taylor Memorial Baptist Church at Germantown Avenue and Butler Street, where he directed the choir.

He sang in performances of Handel's "Messiah" at local churches during the Christmas season, and knew the first part of the oratorio "backward and forward," said his son Michael Weldon Board.

Egbert was born in Rochester, Pa., in Beaver County, the youngest of the 12 children of James Robert Board Sr. and Virginia Birlene Taylor. In 1946, he graduated from Rochester High School, where he was an outstanding athlete. He came to Philadelphia in the late '40s.

He joined the Army Air Corps in 1947, at a time when it was segregated, and was a teletype operator. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he was called back, but he spent most of his hitch on a traveling Air Force basketball team that played at various bases.

Between hitches, he married the former Elizabeth Toland.

Egbert worked for the old Piasecki Helicopter Co. in Delaware County for a time, and joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1959.

His first assignment was at Engine 13, 16th and Parrish streets. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1964. When he retired in 1986, he was assigned to Engine 37 at Highland Avenue and Shawnee Street.

Needless to say, he ran into some racism in the nearly lily-white department. But in telling about it, Egbert never complained. It was just a simple fact of life.

"After he was promoted, he floated to different fire stations, some that never saw a black firefighter," said his son, who joined the Fire Department in 1977.

"He was not confrontational, but he was not going to be taken advantage of," his son said. "He was in charge, and he made sure they did what he told them to do.

"His nickname was 'Smoothie.' One man said to me, 'Your dad is as cool as the other side of the pillow.' "

He was a charter member of the Valiants, the organization of black firefighters.

Egbert's longtime friend Henry J. Holcomb, retired Inquirer staff writer and former president of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, said Egbert told of some racist incidents from when he was stationed with the Air Force in Tampa, Fla.

One time when he was with some white friends at a drive-in restaurant, the manager spotted him in the back seat and smashed the dishes he had used on the driveway.

"There was not an ounce of bitterness in him," Holcomb said. "He worked through those things and never complained."

As a church leader, Egbert "was a very quiet guy who showed up whenever he was needed," Holcomb said.

"He took flowers and Communion to shut-ins. He took kids to camp. He helped run the 'Elder Diner' to feed the elderly, and worked in a food program for the Haitian church nearby."

In discussions of politics and other touchy subjects - including the fortunes of his beloved Sixers - Egbert "always tried to understand another's point of view," Holcomb said.

Egbert was an expert handyman who enjoyed working at his home and church, doing carpentry and whatever else needed doing. He built and installed the cabinets for a new sound system at the church.

Besides his son, he is survived by a daughter, Margaret Rachel Board; two sisters, Virginia Board and Olga Harris; a brother, Haywood, and four grandchildren. He was predeceased by another son, the Rev. Alvin Thomas Board.

Services: Memorial service 4 p.m. Saturday at Second Baptist Church of Germantown, 6459 Germantown Ave.