How did Norman Richardson do it?

Until Mayor Marion Barry nominated him for fire chief in January, he had almost a practiced low visibility inside and outside the fire department.

No recognizable name in the black community, he lived in Wheaton, Md., until two years ago. So, not surprisingly, when blacks came to testify against him at his confirmation hearing last week, they not only questioned his commitment to them, but also whether he even lives in the city.

He was neither the choice of the predominantly white Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters nor the all-black, Progressive Fire Fighters Association.

But by process of elimination and luck, Norman Richardson, long short and dark horse rolled into one, is the new man at the DCFD helm.

During his 23 years on the force, he'd never rocked the boat, joined any professional organizations or ventured, near the storm of racism in the department.

He'd had so little exposure that he was obviously unprepared for the reaction when, just days after his nomination was announced, he told a reporter that he'd never experienced racism.

The remark struck raw nerves in this all-too-recently segregated town. The next time he was asked about race, he did a very precise about-face.

"Of course, I've encountered race problems," he said in an interview. "There's no doubt about it. But the problems have been diminishing over the years. Twenty-three years ago, those things were more clear-cut. Now, they're more subtle. And, of course, when you get to this level, people are reluctant to bring that stuff (racism) to you."

So, it seems, what he meant to say in the first place was he doesn't see much racism at his level.

Nobody's favorite son, he is seen as a compromise candidate for the position, chosen so as not to rankle either black or white firefighters groups, and to reduce longstanding racial imbalance within the department.

Both Local 36 and the Progressive Fire Fighters were angry initially.

Local 36, which had backed John P. Devine, a white assistant fire chief, feared that the chief's job was becoming "black," thereby closing off opportunities for whites to advance to the top.

Blacks in the counter group wondered whether Richardson, a self-described moderate, might be unsympathetic to race-related issues, affirmative action and promotions for blacks, other minorities and women.

They've modified their stands.

"A good chief is one who stands up for his men and is visible," William Hoyle, president of Local 36 says. "I think Richardson will exhibit more of that than the last two cheifs (both black) we've had."

The progressive area worried because both Richardson's assistants, Edward H. Birch and Devine are white, and the fire chief has often been promoted from the assistants.

"We will support him," Ted Holmes, the group's president says. "But after 20 years in the system, he might not see some of the necessary changes. Working within the system is Richardson's forte.

"I think we have some legitimate concerns -- his statement on not having known discrimination, for example. There were many men standing in that hall with him that day who came in (joined the department) with him, and couldn't believe it. You don't have to be a raving black militant, but you have to be honest with yourself."

Richardson was aware of the criticism as he strode into his office for an interview, and sank into the sofa cushions with an ask-me-anything look. Yet, when it is pointed out that many see him as a compromise, his studied down-home expression turns steely. He sits straight up and leans forward.

"I am as capable and deserving as anyone who was considered," he says. "I've worked at almost every level though the ranks, in all sections of the city . . . I know problems and I think I have some of the solutions."

Before his nomination, Richardson was deputy chief in charge of training, an insulated administrative post. Before that, battalion chief. And going back through the years, captain, lieutenant and sergeant. Before that, he was just one of the guys on the back of a fire engine.

He grew up in DC.'s LeDroit Park area, the only child of Winifred Thomas (his mother has remarried) and the late Ambrose Richardson. He graduated from Armstrong Technical High School and after his brief stint as a printer's apprentice, took the civil service test looking for a job with a future.

He joined the department in 1957, after the test indicated a career in firefighting.His other options were police officer and mailman. Neither suited him, he said.

He was 22 years old when he was appointed to the fire department.

Now, 23 years later, he is full of plans for the department, and eager to detail them. What he does not want to discuss in his personal life.

In his spare time, Richardson allows, he likes jazz, visiting friends, disco dancing and working on his car -- a 1977 rose-colored Lincoln Continental Mark V.

Enter D.C. resident and beautician Goldie Johnson into City Council chambers, toting a briefcase full of testimony, stating her case against the chief.

She does not have a personal vendetta against Richardson, she says she just doesn't believe that his managerial experience or his commitment to blacks and other minorities -- Mexican Americans and women, for example -- is strong enough to merit his being chief.

In the principal witness chair, Richardson is storic, serious, a study in starched DCFD navy blue and white.

Johnson says Richardson lives outside of the District, in a house on Birchtree Lane in Wheaton, Md.

Council Chairman member Nadine Winter asks him to state, for the record, what his correct address is, pointing out that there will be serious consequences if he fails to tell the truth.

"182 35th Street Northeast," is Richardson's flinty, even reply. He has argued this one before.

The people on Birchtree Land, most of them white, speak highly of Norman and Cherry Richardson, calling them solid, quiet neighbors, taking both pride and comfort in having the new chief and his family on their block. They apparently are not aware that he's moved into the district.

"I'm thrilled for them -- they're such good neighbors," Mrs. David Shahan of 3000 Birchtree says of Richardson's appointment. "They've been here for about as long as we have -- 10 years or so -- and they're very quiet, nice people. Barry made a good choice."

Seventeen-year-old Janice Wolfgang, who lives at 3005 Birchtree, describes them as "very pleasant" people. "He's congenial. And he doesn't complain about our dog (an Irish setter) barking. They're on the go a lot -- I know the chief must be busy, but I see Mrs. Richardson all the time in her car -- the pink one."

Janice's father Jay says that he's "very pleased" to see the man he still obviously thinks is his next-door neighbor get the job. "I enjoy him very much as a neighbor," Wolfgang said, "I think he'll do a fine job."

Richardson insists he lives at the 35th Street adress with his mother, in a house they bought together in 1978. Perhaps his neighbors are confused because his wife still lives in Wheaton, he says. All of this make him very angry.

The people on 35th Street are vague. They didn't know who lived in the home. Some have seen a man come and go, but one is very surprised to learn the fire chief lives there.

"My address has been in the District for almost two years," Richardson says.

"My mail comes here, my bills come here. I pay my wife to maintain that house out there -- I have a vested interest in the property and do maintain it.I go out there once or twice a week to check on things . . . but I don't think you go around telling all your neighbors that you do or do not live there. If they think I do, well. . ."

It's possible, the chief says, that he and his wife could be getting back together at some point. They do "date" and are not hositle, he adds. "We just can't live together under the same roof."

Although Richardson last voted in Maryland in the 1976 general election, and the Wheaton post office has no change of address request on file for him, his cars -- he also has a 1977 Chevrolet -- are registered here and he pays taxes in D.C.

He has a 21-year-old stepson, Darren Chapman, who lives with his mother in Wheaton. He also has a 26-year-old daughter, Pamela, who lives in the District, but the chief says they are not close.

"It's not that I haven't tried," he says, gazing out an office window."But I guess we just don't communicate."

In an instant, he is all business again, talking, ironically, about his plan to improve communication within the department.

At the beginning of his confirmation hearing last week, there was the usual kind of gathering. Some came to give testimony -- one for, three against -- and others just to watch. One of the curious becomes impatient with all of the questions about taxes, residency and affirmative action. She yawns.

"All seems so silly to me," she says to no one in particular, with a simultaneous wave of the hand. "What I want to know is, can the man put out a fire?"