Funeral arrangements for retired First Deputy Fire Department Commissioner Nicolas Russell are pending, but reaction to his death last Friday, July 29, is being felt across the nation, especially by Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt, who said she is devastated that her friend and mentor has passed.
Russell’s body was found in his garage, according to Nance-Holt. In an interview with the Chicago Crusader, she said, “His friends found him on Friday. Everybody tried to reach him and when we couldn’t get in touch with him, they went to his house then looked in his garage where they found Russell’s body.”
Asked for her reaction to Russell’s death Nance-Holt said,
“Utter disbelief and shocked. I had just spoken to him. He was at the Old Timer’s picnic. He called me and said I should be there, but I was busy. I called him a few days after that. I thought he must have been out of town because he always called me back. His death is a huge loss to a lot of us.
“He helped a lot of us get to where we are,” she said. “I probably would not be who I am today and where I am in the Fire Department without Nic Russell. He pushed very hard and never took no for an answer. He fought for so many people to get the opportunity to be on this job. He helped so many people.”
When Nance-Holt’s son Blair was fatally shot aboard a CTA bus on May 10, 2007, she said Russell “helped me through the murder of my son. He would just sit with me, coming to my house to make sure I ate. I was alone. He made sure someone was there to take care of me during that period.”
“There will not be another Nic Russell because Nic wasn’t afraid to fight. He wasn’t afraid to stand up, and everything he did was to help people. It was never about himself but about advancing other people. When you find people like that, it’s rare. I think that is why he and I got along so well because we both felt the same way about trying to get more Blacks in the department and getting them promoted,” Nance-Holt said.
“It is personally a huge loss of a good friend of over 32 years I talked to all the time. People would say you see one, you see the other. He was my partner running the African American Firefighter’s League,” she said, referring to when Russell was president of that organization.
“He helped us with the Lewis lawsuit and was very instrumental talking with the lawyers and making sure that these young men and women had the opportunities to be successful.”
Russell joined the Chicago Fire Department in 1980 during the strike that began on Valentine’s Day in 1980 and ended on March 8, 1980, with the help of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mediation between the Fire Department’s union and then-Mayor Jane M. Byrne.
During the 23-day strike, 24 people died. Jackson, who was honored several times by Black firefighters, spoke well of Russell’s leadership, saying he championed the cause of affirmative action that helped to get more African Americans into the mostly white Chicago Fire Department.
Nance-Holt said whenever the funeral arrangements are made, “There will be standing-room only because he impacted so many people.”
Russell, like Nance-Holt, is a member of the Saint Sabina Church headed by Father Michael L. Pfleger.
James Winbush, a retired Chicago Fire Department Captain, said, “A bunch of people from across the country are coming to his funeral.
“I met him in March of 1980. I talked to him at least once a week. He was my best friend. His death is a tremendous setback. He will be sorely missed.”
On affirmative action, Winbush said Russell who retired 10 years ago, “Helped us to file the lawsuit about hiring more African Americans. We got 111 Black folks hired, 109 men and 2 women. That was a tremendous accomplishment.
“Nic mentored many people who are at the top of the Chicago Fire Department now, like Annette,” Winbush said.
“All of us are grieving tremendously. Nick would have been 70 years old on August 18. We will miss him.”
Russell is survived by a son, Christian Russell.