Raymond J. Charles didn’t initially envision a career with the Sacramento Fire Department and was talked into completing an application by friends. He applied himself and would go on to rise through the ranks and become the city’s first African American fire chief. There have only ever been two others since. The pioneering civil servant died on December 15. He was 92.
Charles was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 23, 1928 to parents Philip and Irene Charles. The family moved to the Oak Park area of Sacramento in 1942. Ray Charles graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School.
Soon thereafter, he married the former Ida Mae Reid on September 4, 1948. The two would go on to be married for more than 60 years until her passing in 2009. They had three children. Charles credited most of his professional success to having a positive home life — a loving wife and good children, whom he stated, “never got into trouble.”
Charles studied fire science at American River College, where he earned an A.A. degree. Acting on advice from some valuable friends, Charles was given an application for a job in the fire department. His friends submitted his application, he passed the examinations and was offered a job.
When he joined the Sacramento Fire Department in the early 1960s, there were only six African Americans on staff. Charles dedicated himself to the position, and developed the skills and knowledge of all aspects of the department. A self-proclaimed “student of the Golden Rule,” Charles earned a reputation of demonstrating a strong work ethic and a positive outlook.
He was appointed as fire inspector in 1967, fire marshal in 1975, deputy fire chief in 1982 and fire chief in 1986.
His career highlights included helping Sacramentans during the devastating floods of February 1986, establishing a fourth battalion for the department, instituting aggressive fire prevention programs that resulted in reduced numbers of fires citywide and added a truck company to Station 7 in South Sacramento.
Charles had a servant’s heart, particularly as it came to his career.
“I feel it is an obligation to serve the community,” Charles told The OBSERVER in 2003. “At some point we all are recipients of services. It’s only fair that we reciprocate. We should condition ourselves to do the same things that others do for us when we need them. I have been on the receiving end of many services from many, many people. I feel obligated to respond in the same way with those who I may be able to help.”
Charles broke down barriers, helped increase the number of Blacks within the fire department and paved the way for Black fire department leaders such as Julius “Joe” Cherry and Ray Jones to ascend to the position of fire chief as well. However, he remained humble, saying that he was simply doing the job to the best of his ability.
Charles retired in January 1989. He was inducted into the SFD’s Hall of Honor for his service in the public sector. In February 2018, the Public Safety Center, which is headquarters for the city’s police and fire departments, rededicated its ground floor “Hall of Honor” in his name.
After retiring from the SFD, Charles enjoyed golfing, gardening, the annual family bus trip to Reno, playing games on his computer and in later years, weekly outings to area casinos.
He always enjoyed being sharply dressed in suits and hats. He was also a member of Unity of Sacramento Church.
Charles was preceded in death by parents Philip and Irene Charles, wife Ida Charles, siblings Philip Charles Jr., Kathryn Lee and Iris Sims. He is survived by brother Donald Charles, children Kathleen Charles, Gregory Charles and Carol Wright; grandchildren Erika Wright and Thomas Wright; one great grandchild, sisters-in-law Claudia Charles and Sue Charles, and a host of nieces and nephews.