This video features three of my friends. The reporter, Monika Samtani and the two guys who were interviewed by Monika, Steve Souder and Bill Mould, are all people I have known for a long time and have a great deal of respect for. The story is about Steve, who happened to be working his first shift on the radio for DCFD when rioting broke out in the Nation's Capital after the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Steve, whose voice can be heard in the DCFD audio we posted on Friday of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash, is now the 911 director for Fairfax County, Virginia after holding similar jobs in Montgomery County, Maryland and Arlington County, Virginia.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination triggered widespread violent protests across the nation, including the infamous DC riots.
One man's ability to manage multiple emergency calls were put to the test while the Capital city burned on that historic night in 1968.
A mere few hours into his first day on the job as a radio dispatcher, D.C. was going up in flames and Steve Souder was in charge of making life or death decisions.
"April 4, 1968 is indelibly etched in my mind because it was the day which Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee," shared Souder.
News spread quickly that evening. Grief and rage followed and within hours crowds gathered in DC at the intersection of 14th and U streets Northwest, near the McMillan Drive dispatch center, where Souder was posted.
"The anguish across the nation and particularly in the nation's capital was so great that the city was afire from one side of the city to the other side — Southeast, Northeast, Northwest, and Southwest – and I was on my first day on the radio on that particular event," remembered Souder.
For the next three days, hundreds of fires erupted, forcing the fire department of the District of Columbia into Plan "F" for full mobilization. In 1968, crews didn't have the luxury of today's cell phones and GPS technology. They relied on the two-way radio and the dispatcher's information, which had to be accurate.
Bill Mould was one of the many firefighters called in to assist from neighboring counties.
"And Steve was known throughout the city as being one of the best if not THE best dispatcher. He had a voice that was kind of booming and..he also had a great calming voice that you always knew you had somebody on the other end of the radio who understood what was going on," said Mould.
By the time the riots came to an end, more than 1,000 buildings had been burned, but a fire was ignited in Souder's soul. He says those few tragic days showed him he found his niche in life, so he stuck with it — for 51 years.
He told us, "If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life."
Today, Souder is the director of one of the 10 largest 911 centers in the country, which is located in Fairfax County, Va.
In Northeast Washington, the office building at 2120 Bladensburg Road owned by IAFF Local 36 officially became the Kenneth M. Cox Building yesterday. I say officially, because I have thought of it as the Kenneth M. Cox Building for quite a few decades. In my 25 years as a TV reporter it is probably the location I visited most often and the place where I found some of the richest and most interesting stories. And Kenny Cox is largely responsible for that. I would go as far to say that STATter911.com probably would not exist without Kenny. That in itself is an interesting comment considering Kenny usually can't even find the on button to his computer without help.
My friend Kenny Cox is full of such interesting contradictions. As the person who served as an elected official of IAFF Local 36 longer than anyone else (37 years) Kenny has been an extremely important player in the work of the union. But while Kenny's fingerprints were everywhere, he stayed out of the spotlight.
Kenny's ideas and words have been heard by many in speeches and during hearings in the District Building and on Capitol Hill. But those words rarely came out of Kenny's mouth.
In the 1970s Kenny Cox won an extremely important First Amendment case for the union, fighting the punishment he received for criticizing the administration over a fatal fire near the quarters of a company closed due to budget cuts. He spoke to a reporter while on-duty at the scene of the fire. Yet, despite a federal judge confirming his right to speak his mind, the name Kenny Cox was rarely in the newspaper. Kenny was the main point of contact for reporters looking to find out Local 36's view of the world, but he wouldn't let you quote him. I believe my only on-camera interview with Kenny is in the video at the top of this page and it occurred yesterday.
And this quiet and deeply religious man also has an absolutely devilish side that often comes out in his deadpan sense of humor and as an instigator of practical jokes.
While I've been intrigued about all of these interesting aspects of Kenny's personality, the characteristics that meant the most to a young TV reporter hungry for a good story were his honesty, credibility and decency.
If Kenny Cox told me something, I knew I could rely on it. The truth was the truth with Kenny, even when it wasn't the best of news for the union. He knew his credibility was the most important commodity in being an effective advocate for the firefighters of the District of Columbia.
And the many union presidents that passed through during Kenny's tenure also realized the treasure they had in Kenny Cox. As Bill Mould said yesterday during the dedication ceremony, "I often felt like the guy who sits on the ventriloquist's lap". It seemed to be a universal feeling among all of the former union heads, even though there isn't a dummy among them. Still, a cynical ex-reporter wanted to know if Cox drafted their speeches for the event, considering each of them rarely ventured out on union business without Kenny's words in their pockets.
Kenny will be the first to tell you that there are many, many others who helped guide Local 36 through the late 20th and early 21st Century. And there were. But Kenny's ability to work the halls of Congress on both sides of the aisle and at the same time deal with the politics in the District Building was somewhat unique. Especially considering that DC's mayors and council members hated when the union went to Congress to get help on District issues.
One such effort was 30-years-ago when Cox used the influence of a Virginia congressman and others to convince Mayor Marion Barry that firing the recruits of Class 275, who had all just left other jobs to be DC firefighters, was a really bad idea. Four members of that class, all now chief officers of the department, made a special presentation to Kenny.
While younger members may know some of what Kenny Cox has meant to the local, it is unlikely they know much about Kenny as a firefighter. There were quite a few long retired firefighters and officers at the ceremony yesterday who told those stories. Among those was Kenny's close friend, and former lieutenant at Truck 8, Larry Beardmore. Beardmore is from a family of legendary firefighters, including his brothers Tex and Johnny, who I knew very well from my days in Prince George's County.
About five-years-ago I ran across film of a May, 1972 event at the District Building with Mayor Walter Washington. There was no description of the event, but I immediately recognized a young Kenny Cox sitting with a group of firefighters. Another part of the film showed an interview with an officer whose face bore a strong resemblance to the Beardmores I knew. From a story I had heard from Kenny years before about Larry Beardmore grabbing three young children out of a burning apartment building, I figured this must be Truck 8 getting the "Company of the Year" award. I was correct.
While I actually first heard of that amazing rescue and Larry's Gold Medal of Valor while I was in PG in the 70s, I really never knew much about Kenny's role at that fire until I pushed for further details after finding the clip. Kenny and Firefighter Barrett Payne each received Silver Medals for their actions on January 21, 1971 at 4307 3rd Street, SE.
Engine 25 had gone to the address on a local alarm for a bush on fire just after midnight but found fire showing out of a picture window on the first floor and rapidly extending to the the second and third floors. I strongly encourage you to read the entire report (here) written by Larry Beardmore. Here is some of what Larry wrote about Kenny's actions (click the image below to increase its size):
Yesterday Larry and Kenny both described it as a "routine fire" and just laughed at a washed up TV news guy as he tried to elicit something of substance about the incident. But make sure you listen to the few usable words from Beardmore at the end of the video above. They are important.
And since we are talking about family, let's not forget Kenny's high school sweetheart Marti. They will be married 48-years next January. Or his children Ken Jr. and Michelle Lyn and grandchildren Taylor Lyn and Ethan. Michelle, who sings each year at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend, did a moving tribute to her dad during the dedication ceremony.
Despite pushing 70 and a body ravaged by serious spinal issues and Parkinson's Disease, Kenny Cox still works hard on behalf of Local 36.
Kenny didn't want the tribute yesterday and even threatened not to show up. I imagine he will be greatly embarrassed by what I have written here (not that the man who has given Dave Statter more fire department stories than anyone else is likely to read the blog). I say tough.
It is long overdue for Kenny Cox to come out of the shadows and be recognized publicly. I would make the case that not only are DC firefighters much better off for the work of Kenny Cox, but so are the citizens of and visitors to the District of Columbia. When it comes to anything fire related, Kenneth M. Cox is probably more responsible than any chief, union president, firefighter or political leader in ensuring the safety of everyone in the Nation's Capital.