Robert O. Lowery

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Robert O. Lowery
Robert O. Lowery in 1966
21st New York City Fire Commissioner
In office
January 1, 1966 – September 29, 1973
MayorJohn V. Lindsay
Preceded byMartin Scott
Succeeded byJohn T. O'Hagan
Personal details
BornApril 20, 1916
Buffalo, New York
DiedJuly 24, 2001 (aged 85)
New York, New York
SpouseViviane Lowery
ChildrenTrudy and Leslie Lowery

Robert Oliver Lowery (April 20, 1916 – July 24, 2001) was sworn in as the 21st New York City Fire Commissioner by Mayor John V. Lindsay on January 1, 1966, and held that position until his resignation on September 29, 1973.


Lowery left a job in Harlem as head usher for the Alhambra Theatre for his first civil service appointment. After taking a number of tests, he became a subway conductor for a year in the New York Transit Authority.[1] His next post was with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). He was appointed as a fireman in 1941 and promoted to fire marshal in 1946, the same year that he won a commendation for arresting a man for 30 acts of arson and burglary. In 1960, he was cited for capturing an armed arsonist, and the year after became an acting lieutenant in the Bureau of Fire Investigation.[2] During this time, Lowery was an active member of the Vulcan Society and its president from 1946 to 1950, 1953 and 1954, 1957, and from 1959 to 1963.

On November 14, 1963, Lowery was appointed Deputy Fire Commissioner.[3] He addressed the racial issue head on, striving to increase the proportion of blacks and the sensitivity of whites. He also increased the number of black firefighters assigned to black neighborhoods, as well as the number of blacks in leadership roles.

On November 23, 1965, incoming mayor Lindsay announced the appointment of Lowery as Fire Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. His was the first commissioner level appointment announced by the mayor-elect. Lowery, who was the first African American to be a fire commissioner of a major U.S. city, held that position for more than 7 years until his resignation on September 29, 1973, in order to campaign for then-controller, Abraham D. Beame, the Democratic candidate for mayor.[4]

Lowery died on July 24, 2001, in Manhattan at the age of 85.[5]

Either as tribute or by happenstance, his name is shown prominently in a scene of the first movie The Godfather, printed in bold red letters on a hospital fire safety box in the scene where Michael Corleone protects his father, Vito Corleone, against would-be assassins in the absence of his bodyguards. The action is set before 1946, however, so the reference is anachronistic.


  1. ^ Douglas Martin (July 27, 2001). "Robert Lowery, First Black Fire Commissioner, Dies at 85". The New York Times.
  2. ^ History, Vulcan Society FDNY Archived 2007-07-22 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Negro Appointed Deputy Fire Aide. Lowery Succeeds Ortiz". The New York Times. November 15, 1963. Retrieved March 25, 2010.
  4. ^ Smith, Terence (November 24, 1965). "Lindsay Selects A Negro To Head Fire Department. Lowery, Democrat, Will Be First Of His Race To Hold That Commissionership". The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2010. Robert O. Lowery, a 49-year-old Democrat who voted for Abraham D. Beame for Mayor, was selected yesterday as the city's first Negro Fire Commissioner.
  5. ^ Martin, Douglas (July 27, 2001). "Robert Lowery, First Black Fire Commissioner, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved March 25, 2010. Robert O. Lowery, the city's first black fire commissioner who served at a time when arson-fueled blazes raged through the city's minority neighborhoods, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 85 and had homes in Washington Heights and on the island of St. Vincent, his daughter Trudy Erwin said.
Fire appointments
Preceded by FDNY Commissioner
Succeeded by