Thomas James Upshaw Jr. retired from the Philadelphia Fire Department, but he never left, said his friends, who recalled a loyal firefighter who rose to the rank of lieutenant, and then served as the city’s assistant fire marshal.
Although he moved from his home in South Philadelphia to live in Mays Landing, N.J., Mr. Upshaw returned to the city at least once a month to lunch with other retirees from the Fire Department — even while running a liquor store he owned in New Jersey, and undergoing frequent kidney dialysis in recent years, said his granddaughter, Lisa Branch-Edwards. The 86-year-old retiree died at Atlantic Care Regional Medical Center in Pomona on Feb. 7, after being admitted three weeks earlier.
“The Fire Department was very important to him,” Branch-Edwards said.
Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Mr. Upshaw joined the Air Force after graduating from South Philadelphia High School. He served as an advanced radio operator in France and Germany, earning commendation medals before his honorable discharge in 1953 with the rank of senior airman. After he returned to the United States, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a firefighter. He retired in 1983, after having served 28 years on the force and achieving the rank of lieutenant and assistant fire marshal.
Edwin Wells, who served with Mr. Upshaw in the Fire Department, said Mr. Upshaw was particular about safety.
“He was a great mentor. He taught me an awful lot,” Wells said. “I was grateful because he taught me skills I used throughout the years.”
Mr. Upshaw served as president of the Club Valiants, a professional organization created to provide brotherhood and advanced the interests of African American firefighters — including integrating fire houses, creating career advancement, and equal pay.
In 1975, Mr. Upshaw was on the board that initiated a lawsuit against the city for failing to provide equal opportunities, which led to a court order to increase the number of minorities on the payroll. The decision to sue had not been made lightly “because we were putting our jobs on the line. We didn’t know how the city would react,” said former Deputy Chief Willie Williams.
Williams recalled that Mr. Upshaw also served in the department when the Gulf Oil refinery in South Philadelphia erupted into a 12-alarm blaze that burned for six days and took the lives of eight firefighters during an explosion that trapped the men in 1975. It remains one of the city’s worst disasters, Williams said.
Branch-Edwards said her grandfather loved fishing. After retiring in 1983, Mr. Upshaw and his wife, Josephine, moved to Mays Landing and opened Royal Liquors in Atlantic City on Arctic Avenue. As casinos drew tourists and development, the liquor store grew into a solid business, she said.
Eventually, the business was sold and Mr. Upshaw split his time fishing, boating, and visiting friends. He enjoyed a good game of pool and taught his younger relatives how to play and improve, Branch-Edwards said. He was also very religious and supported the churches he attended. He told his family, “When God’s ready for me, I’m ready for him.”
In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. Upshaw in survived by his son, Carl Branch, a great-grandson, a sister, and a brother. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Lottie Branch, and in 2012 by his second wife, Josephine McGill, and a brother.
Visitation is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 16, from 9 to 11 a.m., with a service to follow at New Hope Baptist Church, 312 Manheim St., Philadelphia. Interment will be at Chelten Hills Cemetery, 1701 Washington Lane, Philadelphia.