From the boy who attended segregated schools in North Carolina to the man who became Philadelphia's first African American fire commissioner, Harold B. Hairston was lovingly remembered as a pioneer, an icon, and a hero at his funeral Thursday.
Firefighter-red ribbons draped the altar at New Covenant Church of Philadelphia in West Mount Airy, where the service was held. No matter that the ribbons were early Christmas decorations. On Thursday, they seemed just right for the veteran firefighter's funeral.
Speaking at the service, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said he would never forget how Hairston called him on his first day on the job, just six months ago.
"He welcomed me to the city, he welcomed me to the job, and he got right into it," Thiel said.
Thiel was well aware of Hairston, whose reach and impact extended well beyond Philadelphia, he said. Thiel used to read about Hairston's work in firefighter magazines.
"I hope to do half as much work as he did in his career. I would consider that a job well done," Thiel said. "But he would probably say 'Well, you're just getting started.' "
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who presented a citation from City Council to Hairston's family, said when he was growing up in Philadelphia, Hairston was one of his heroes.
"It was how he carried himself, his character," Johnson said. "His spirit and his smile encouraged me."
Hairston's best friend, former Fire Capt. Eugene Turnipseed, said that after he retired from the department, Hairston stayed on and rose through the ranks.
"But he never outgrew me and he never forgot who his friends were," Turnipseed said.
In his eulogy, the Rev. Donald D. Moore, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, said Hairston was a "cornerstone" for his family, his department, and the city.
"The cornerstone is what sets the foundation for every structure," Moore said. "The cornerstone provides the framework for all the other stones."
Hairston, who was 76 when he died Nov. 1, grew up in North Carolina and served for three years with the Army's 82nd Airborne.
After his discharge, he moved to Philadelphia and joined the Fire Department in 1964. He was one of the earliest black firefighters to help integrate the department.
In 1992, Hairston was appointed fire commissioner by Mayor Ed Rendell and served in that position for 12 years, until his retirement in 2004.
Hairston had three children and was married to his wife, Anne, for 41 years.
Following the service, retired Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, who replaced Hairston, said fire prevention was just as important as firefighting for Hairston, whom he called a "pioneer."
"He was one of the exemplary icons of the Philadelphia Fire Department," Ayers said. "We followed in his footsteps.""