At virtually any time during the last four decades, you could find Richard Ligon at the Riverhead firehouse.
A decorated 40-year veteran of the Riverhead Fire Department, he died in May at age 77, but had remained active in the fire department until the very end. He originally had to fight to join the department in the 1970s, after his initial application was denied.
For his dedication to the town and his outstanding legacy, Mr. Ligon has been chosen posthumously as the Riverhead News-Review’s 2017 Public Servant of the Year.
“He remained active over his service time in the fire department,” Riverhead Chief Kevin Brooks said. “He remained very active in responding and helping out. He belonged to many organizations.”
Mr. Ligon began his career in the fire service in January 1977. He was Riverhead’s first African-American firefighter and was elected its first African-American commissioner in 1999.
He applied to join the department 1975, but was rejected. He then filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Division, which ultimately led to a settlement that allowed him to join. Fire commissioners at the time did not admit to having a discriminatory membership policy, according to contemporary news reports.
Town Justice Allen Smith, a former Riverhead Town supervisor, served as a firefighter alongside Mr. Ligon for 40 years, and shared many fond memories of him.
“It was a joy working with him; he was a good guy,” he said. “He was a fixture in the back room of the firehouse.”
Mr. Ligon was an ex-captain of Redbird Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 and served as commissioner from 2000 to 2004. He was also president of the North Fork Volunteer Fireman’s Association from 2012 to 2014.
“The problem was he expected us to do everything he did,” Chief Brooks said, laughing.
Even in his later years, Mr. Ligon remained incredibly active in the department. At 71, while responding to a fire at an auto parts store on Raynor Avenue, he broke two ribs and was hospitalized.
“Back in his prime, he was a hell of a fireman,” Chief Brooks said. “As we get older, we slow down a little bit, but he became very active in other productive organizations within the fire service.”
His many other accolades included being captain of the Ironmen Racing Team from 1989 to 1990, a past president of the Suffolk County Drill Officials, and an area representative to the New York State Parade and Drill Team Captains Association. He was also a member of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighter Emerald Society.
“He was family man,” Chief Brooks said. “He was extremely busy all the time.”
When Mr. Ligon was buried at Calverton National Cemetery, firefighters and police officers saluted the fire truck that carried his casket. His service was attended by thousands.
He graduated from Riverhead High School in 1957, was a U.S. Navy veteran and worked as a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for more than 30 years. Mr. Ligon also ran a transportation service to and from airports, which kept him busy when he wasn’t fighting fires.
“It was not just a ride, it was an experience,” Mr. Smith said in a eulogy during his funeral. “Lively conversation does not describe it.”
He was named Riverhead Firefighter of the Year in 1993 and was Redbird Hook & Ladder Company No. 1’s Redbird of the Year three times, in 1988, 1993 and 2008.
“He was an all-around good guy and a very well-liked individual,” Chief Brooks said.
“This award is well deserved and I know that Richie is looking down at us all with a smile,” Judge Smith said.
File photo caption: Richard Ligon, pictured in 2005, lived and breathed the fire service and was a top responder for years, his fellow Riverhead volunteers said. He died in May at the age of 77. (Credit: Barbarallen Koch)
2016: Tom Lateulere
2015: Susan Wilk
2014: Carl James
2013: Dennis Cavanagh
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: George Woodson
2010: Robert Brown
2009: Barbara Grattan
2008: Liz Stokes
2007: Michael Reichel
2006: Gary Pendzick
2005: The Riverhead Ambulance Corps
2004: Richard Wines
2003: Ken Testa
2002: “KeySpan Coalition”
2001: Ed Densieski
2000: Judge Richard Ehlers
1999: Barbara Blass
1998: Vicki Staciwo
1997: Lenard Makowski
1996: Buildings & Grounds
1995: Jack Hansen
1994: Jim Stark
1993: Rick Hanley
1992: Lawyer Jackson
1991: Andrea Lohneiss
1990: Monique Gablenz
1989: George Bartunek
1988: Patricia Tormey