After more than 50 years since he joined the Alexandria Fire Department, Gerald Wanzer finally made lieutenant.
The 75-year-old native Alexandrian was the second African American to join the department, and on Thursday he was presented with an honorary lieutenant helmet and badge by Fire Chief Corey Smedley.
Smedley said Wanzer helped pave the way for African Americans in the city.
“Mr. Wanzer, there would be no Corey Smedley without you. So, thank you,” Smedley said. “I want people to know that in the department, as long as I’m here, we will practice and execute diversity and inclusion in every way imaginable… And this is a small demonstration of what he should have received years ago.”
Wanzer said that he has been trying to make lieutenant for decades.
“It means so very much to me,” Wanzer told ALXnow. “I’ve been trying to get this position for years because I felt like I was cheated out something that I very much deserved.”
Wanzer was born and raised in Alexandria, and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Parker Gray High School in 1963. After being discharged in 1967, he spent two years as the first African American installer for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company. It was after he ran into an old high school friend of his, John Davis — the first African American with the department — that he decided to take the AFD admission test.
“It was a childhood dream to become a firefighter, and even in the military I was one of a very few blacks in my outfit, so I had no problem working with anyone — although they might have had a problem working with me,” Wanzer said. “I later took the test for lieutenant and I came out number 5, but with some finagling wound up number 10 and I never did get promoted. The guy who was number 15 moved down to number 5, so I got pencil-whipped.”
Wanzer retired from the department in 1981 on disability after a ladder fell on him during a fire call on the West End. He had four surgeries for a ruptured disk in his back, but remains in near-constant pain. He became the first president of the Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax chapter of the Black Firefighters International Association, which is now known as the Black Fire Service Professionals of Alexandria.
Jessica Wanzer attended the ceremony with her brothers, Craig and Edward, and said that she was proud to see her father receive the recognition he deserves.
“He loves supporting all of the current firefighters. He comes and checks in on them all the time and gives them advice,” she said. “I’m just so proud of him, because he paved the way for a lot of other African American firefighters.”