Richard Ligon had to fight to join the Riverhead Fire Department, becoming the department’s first black firefighter in 1977 after he had initially been rejected.
He went on to become one of Riverhead’s most trusted volunteers — a former fire commissioner and Firefighter of the Year who competed on the department’s competition drill team.
Hundreds are expected to attend his funeral next week. He died at home Monday from a heart attack, said his daughter, Lynn Ligon of Riverhead. He was 77.
“He lived and breathed for the fire service,” Riverhead Fire Chief Kevin Brooks said yesterday.
Brooks said the department is treating Ligon’s passing as a death in the line of duty. Ligon had responded to a fire and a separate motor vehicle accident on Sunday before attending Riverhead’s annual memorial service honoring fire department volunteers who died last year, Brooks said.
Ligon had faced resistance when he tried to join the fire department in the 1970s. He filed a complaint that forced officials to let him become a volunteer on Jan. 4, 1977.
Over the past 40 years he served as captain of the department’s Redbird Hook & Ladder Company, captained the Ironmen drill team for two years, served as fire commissioner from 2000 to 2004 and was named Riverhead’s Firefighter of the Year in 1993.
“For a guy who had to fight his way into the fire service, he became an institution in the fire service,” said Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith, a fellow Riverhead firefighter.
He said drill teams from upstate New York planned to attend Ligon’s funeral on Monday. Brooks said department officials expect up to 1,000 people to attend the service.
“That’s the kind of impact this guy had,” Smith said.
Ligon was born on Aug. 28, 1939, in Riverhead. He graduated from Riverhead High School and served in the Navy.
He worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 36 years and also delivered mail part-time for the Riverhead school district, his daughter said.
“He was a lovable person. He will be well missed,” Lynn Ligon said. “He loved anyone’s company. He was loved. He was definitely loved.”
Besides his daughter, Ligon is survived by his wife, Barbara; sisters Rita Rose Watson of Rockledge, Florida, and Shirley Ligon of Douglasville, Georgia; and a grandson.
Visitation is 2-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Riverhead firehouse, 540 Roanoke Ave. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike in Riverhead. Burial will follow at Calverton National Cemetery.