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North Shore brothers lead fire departments

Gus Martins
North Shore brothers lead fire departments
Brothers Graham and Stephen Archer lead the Swampscott and Lynn fire departments. PHOTO: COURTESY THE DAILY ITEM

Becoming the City of Lynn’s first black fire chief in early 2018 was momentous to Stephen Archer, his extended family and, unbeknownst to him as it was happening, the city at large.

“People who I hadn’t heard from or spoken to in years, and teachers I had in elementary school or who had taught my older siblings, would write or call and say ‘We are pulling for you and we are proud of you,’’’ said Archer, 58. “It was just overwhelming and touching.’’

He was working as an electrician when a few temporary union layoffs and the prodding of younger brother Graham got Stephen Archer thinking about a career change.

That act of brotherly love from Graham, already a firefighter in a nearby town and loving it, was a sign that Graham believed his older brother would one day be equally enamored with protecting the public.

Graham, now 55, who began in plumbing, was correct: Firefighting would become each of their life’s calling.

Graham also had further aspirations. Within two years of Stephen’s promotion to chief in Lynn, Graham would be sworn in as fire chief in the Town of Swampscott, a coastal community a skip-and-a-jump due north from the Archers’ East Lynn childhood home.

An impressive feat, no doubt. But anyone who grew up with or around David and Iona Archers’ offspring recognized this was a family for whom boundless success seemed pre-ordained.

David and Iona left the Barbados parishes of St. Peter and St. Lucy in the late 1950s, then detoured for six years in a London suburb before crossing over the Atlantic to Cambridge. From there, it was on to Lynn in the late 1960s where their clan of nine children (one girl died in infancy) personified humility and embodied the attainment, often elusive, of a harmonious and unified family.

“We grew up with parents, both General Electric employees, who said, ‘If you are going to do something you might as well dedicate yourself,’’’ said Graham. “I have taken every promotional opportunity that was available to me from the earliest part of my career. I’ve enjoyed every step of the way. This is a whole new role, with the chief’s job, and I am thoroughly enjoying it.’’

Until just the last few months, Graham, who joined the department at 21, was the only Black member of the 32-man Swampscott department, in a town that is 93.5% white.

In contrast, Stephen’s department in Lynn has 199 personnel, including 183 uniformed members, in a city of 101,000 that is a magnet for new immigrants, with 40 different languages spoken.

“It wasn’t like that when we were kids,’’ said Stephen, who joined the department at age 29. “There might have been a handful of Spanish kids. You had the Black kids and that was about it. It was a majority-white school system and city. But the white kids and the Black kids played together. There just weren’t many things to worry about. White and Black kids rough-housed together. Growing up in Lynn was a good experience. I have mostly good memories of growing up in the city of Lynn.’’

Also in the city was a core of Black firefighters, some a decade or more older than the current chief. “Buzzy” Barton, Kenny Turner, Robert Jackson, Bernardo Young, Larry Pitcher, Eddie Freeman, and Eugene Clemens, a Lynn native who worked for the Peabody Fire Department, all helped smooth out the department’s rough edges, helping to making it possible for a younger class to transition in and establish themselves more readily.

Barton, who turns 70 in May and is now a six-time elected city councilor, said, “It was one of the proudest moments of my life being at Stephen’s and Graham’s swearing-in.’’

“I was around when [Stephen] made captain and lieutenant, but I told him I was not going to be happy until his two bugles crossed and he was sworn in as chief. ‘’

Barton said watching Stephen Archer come through the ranks, it was clear that the city had most likely hired its future chief.

“I saw it from day one when he came on the job,’’ he said. “When he gave his speech after being hired to the department, there were people in the audience who knew before he did where we thought he could go. Every time he climbed up in the ranks it put a big smile on my face.’’

Older brother Mark Archer opted out of the college track, going to Lynn Technical High School, a path both Stephen and Graham soon followed. Not so for their sisters.

“Jenny (this reporter’s first Spanish teacher) began in Lynn Public Schools and then moved to Pennsylvania when she got married, and is now retired in Barbados,” Stephen said. “Jackie worked for data processing for Harvard University for 40 years. Sonia was the chief probation officer in District Court in Salem. Our parents were kind of old school, and there was a patriarchy kind of thing. If one of the girls had decided to go to a trade school, that would have been a big battle in the Archer household.’’

Mark started as a plumber, then did a 20-year stint as a trooper with the Massachusetts State Police. He’s now a personal injury lawyer.

“I think it was easier for him to talk my father into letting him go to Tech than it was for me,’’ said Stephen. “I was always on a college track, I did really well in school, and my father had dreams to see me going off to college.’’

Brother Othneil started straight out of high school as a management apprentice at General Electric in Lynn. He then spent a decade managing his finish carpentry business before returning to GE in a managerial capacity.

Family success, however, has also been marred by tragedy. David Sr. died of a heart attack in 1979. David Jr., the oldest boy, was killed in an industrial accident in 1985 at age 27. His death reverberated around the city. Stephen was working in Boston when his electrical union foreman handed him the phone.

“Othneil just came right out and told me David was killed in an accident,’’ he said. “It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and all the air just went out of me. I had a 1977 Camaro that I loved — I jumped in that car and to this day I don’t remember anything about that drive home.’’

David Sr.’s passing had to be an incalculable blow to his children. But, as Stephen recalls, his mom remained the rock, shepherding her children, and they all pulled together.

“I was only 15 when my dad died,’’ Stephen said. “That was tough on the family. My mom has passed now. She died in 2016. She lived long after my father died. She shouldered the burden of raising the rest of us. She was a great role model and a hard-working woman. She was a prayer warrior. She spent her life praying to the lord for her kids and for other mothers in the neighborhood and for the people in her church.’’

With families of their own and too many nieces and nephews to count, Stephen said he and his siblings all give reverent praise to an ideal set of parents.

“The family thing is really important. David and Iona would be looking down smiling, knowing we are still together and that we are still close,’’ he said. “The thing they started is still close and intact. That’s the goal, to continue on to the next generation.’’

firefighters, local news, Lynn