After serving for 16 months as interim chief of Lexington's Division of Fire, Keith Jackson was named the department's next chief.
Jackson's appointment, announced by Mayor Jim Gray at a news conference Thursday afternoon, not only fills a void for the department's top job it also will be marked in history books. Jackson is the city's first black fire chief.
"When I think of Keith, I think of these words: discipline, loyalty, country, community, service, friends, family," Gray said.
Jackson, 47, had been interim chief since March 2011, about a month after Gray asked for the resignation of then-Chief Robert Hendricks. The resulting conflict had percolated, leaving the top leadership position unresolved. Hendricks initially resisted the change, went on leave, applied for a disability pension that was turned down, but returned last week to work as a firefighter and paramedic.
At the time Gray asked for Hendricks to step down, he cited weak management skills and an extreme amount of staff overtime in the fire department.
Jackson was tapped to right the ship, and he apparently made progress in those perceived trouble areas.
During Thursday's news conference, city officials and rank and file firefighters spoke of his reputation for fairness and discipline.
Gray said morale has improved in the department and there is tighter organization, with daily reports and quarterly meetings with the executive and command staff. There also is a leadership development program that Jackson initiated.
And city officials have credited Jackson with helping to reduce the department's overtime 96 percent since the 2009 budget year, when the division of fire spent $3.25 million on overtime.
Commissioner of Public Safety Clay Mason said that in his mind, "Keith Jackson was never really interim. What we saw in this department was radical improvement in pretty short order."
At the time of Jackson's appointment as interim chief, Gray said he selected the assistant chief because Jackson had proven leadership skills as an Army reservist.
Jackson, a lieutenant colonel, retires from the Army Reserves this month after 25 years of service.
When asked in March 2011 whether Jackson's role as interim chief put him in position to be named the permanent chief, Gray said, "What he's doing today is the job we've got to do today ... restore confidence, trust, provide vision and leadership in this department."
On Thursday, the mayor said Jackson did that.
"It took patience and persistence, because he was making changes and restoring the faith and confidence of the firefighters while in that acting role," Gray said.
Being interim chief was a challenge for Jackson, Gray said after the swearing-in ceremony, during which he pinned the chief's badge on Jackson's lapel.
A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Jackson worked his way up through the ranks as a firefighter and a paramedic. His appointment as chief was one he shared with his family and firefighters.
John Drake, who became the city's first black firefighter when he joined the force on May 16, 1969, was among those in the crowd. Drake is a family friend and attends Historic Pleasant Green Baptist Church with Jackson.
Jackson's mother, Beverly Miller, and his grandparents, Richard and Cora Briscoe, who celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary Thursday, also were on hand.
During the swearing-in ceremony, Jackson's mother wiped away tears. Later, she said of her son, "He was always such a good child. Always did his homework. Always went to school. From the first grade to the sixth, he did not miss a single day of school. He has been a joy to have as a son."
She said Jackson was an example "for all boys, regardless of race, who want to achieve and have a great life. It is to study, get a good education and be respectful of your elders."
In a nod to his mother and grandparents, Jackson said, "Those three people gave me my work ethic."
As a small child, Jackson said, he wondered why his grandfather got up at 4:30 a.m. when he did not have to be to work until 7 a.m. He learned later that his grandfather got up early to study, because while holding down a full-time job, he was attending the University of Kentucky.
Jackson said one of his daughters asked him similar questions. He said he left home early so he could go to the gym, "so I could stay slim."
"She always questioned why I'm early for everything. Because 47 years ago I watched my grandfather go to the University of Kentucky and work," Jackson said. "That's why I'm working when everyone else is sleeping, because I got that from him."
Jackson has two daughters, Karrington, 10, and Taylor, 15, who live in Louisville.
Taylor said, "It makes me feel proud that my dad could be the first black chief in Lexington."
Jackson thanked city officials and fire department employees for believing in him. "Thank you for this opportunity and I look forward to taking the Lexington fire department to new levels," he said.
Asked about his priorities as chief, Jackson said his top priority was preparing to hire new recruits for the upcoming firefighter training class.
In May, the city was notified that the Department of Justice had launched an investigation into the lack of diversity in the fire department. The investigation continues, Jackson said. In the coming weeks, the fire department will recruit across the state "to make sure we get the most diverse class we can, with an increased number of women and African-Americans."
Several firefighters and city officials who attended Thursday's ceremony said Jackson was off to a good start.
Firefighter Jessica Rash, who has been on the force for three years, said she had been impressed with Jackson's interpersonal skills. "He takes time to talk to firefighters. He's a good communicator."
"He's an exceptional leader," firefighter Charles Anders said. "He's very intelligent, very fair."
Pam Brandenburg, past president of the city's Civil Service Employees Association, was on vacation this week, but she drove 45 miles from her home in Estill County to attend the swearing-in ceremony.
"He has done an awesome job as interim," Brandenburg said of Jackson.
"He has been fair to both sworn and civilian employees, and we have not always seen that," she said. "It was the only thing to do to appoint him permanent chief."
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251.Twitter: @BFortune2010.