John P. Breen, D.C. fire official who won race discrimination suit, dies at 88

September 27, 2011

John P. Breen, a D.C. firefighter who rose to the department’s top ranks in the 1970s and later won a race discrimination lawsuit against the District, saying he had been bypassed for a promotion because he was white, died Sept. 10 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. He was 88.

He had pneumonia and complications from skin cancer, said his daughter Monica Michewicz.

Mr. Breen retired from the D.C. fire department in 1978 at the rank of deputy chief. In his 32-year career, he served as a battalion chief, fire marshal and acting assistant fire chief, working as head of the training division.

Before retiring, Mr. Breen and other white firefighters took legal steps against the District, saying they had suffered discrimination when being considered for promotion a few years earlier.

At issue was the 1974 promotion of Jefferson Lewis, a battalion chief, to the department’s second-ranking position. Lewis, who was black, had less experience and was lower in rank than Mr. Breen and other whites vying for the job of assistant fire chief for operations.

Lewis was chosen by then-Fire Chief Burton Johnson and approved by then-Mayor Walter E. Washington (D).

In 1978, Lewis became fire chief, a move opposed by the majority of the District’s firefighter union members. He retired after 20 months on the job, citing difficulties running the department.

In 1982, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the District did not properly consider the white firefighters for the promotion.

A year later, after the city failed to address the EEOC report, Mr. Breen and four white fire department deputy chiefs filed a lawsuit against the District, claiming their careers had been curtailed by racial discrimination.

In 1985, a U.S. district judge ruled that Lewis’s promotion was legitimate. The judge noted that the fire department’s 1,400-member force included 400 black firefighters.

In 1986, a three-judge panel in a federal appeals court reversed the decision, declaring that the 1974 promotion had discriminated against Mr. Breen and his four co-workers. The plaintiffs reached a settlement with the District.

John Patrick Breen, a native Washingtonian, was born Dec. 25, 1922. He was a graduate of Gonzaga College High School.

He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and received a Distinguished Flying Cross and three awards of the Air Medal as a tailgunner and radio operator on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific.

In retirement, he worked as an instructor at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

His wife of 49 years, Mary Elizabeth Reiter Breen, died in 1995.

Survivors include his wife of 10 years, Jane Kneisley Breen of Silver Spring; 10 children from his first marriage, Michael Breen of Louisa, Va., Maureen Stant of Merritt Island, Fla., Monica Michewicz of Southport, N.C., Kathleen Partington of Bowie, Patrick Breen of North Potomac, Mary Ellen Dorsey of New Bern, N.C., Thomas Breen of Owings, Md., James Breen of Lusby, Teresa Breen of Zion Crossroads, Va., and Beth McAllister of College Park; a stepson, William Stickley of Harrisburg, Pa.; 23 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
Continue reading
Most Read Local