Meriden — It was five months and one class later, but Wednesday afternoon, Alfred Mayo walked across the stage and graduated from the state fire academy.
"I'm sure it's been an exhausting journey for you and your family," said Marc Scrivener, the Willimantic fire chief, in his congratulatory remarks to academy Class 49, "but you're here."
The words were meant for all 17 members of the class, the smallest in the academy's history, but may have resonated most with Mayo, who was pulled from the academy in December and fired by the City of New London three days before he was to have graduated with Class 48.
Mayo is first black firefighter hired by the New London Fire Department since 1978. This was the latest step in his back-and-forth relationship with city officials that may not be over yet. If the city lays off 25 firefighters, as has been threatened, Mayo would be among those to go.
But Wednesday, Mayo had a big smile on his face and a large contingent of friends and family in the crowd in the auditorium at the State Police Academy for support. When his name was announced, Mayo walked across the stage and received his diploma from his uncle, Roger Tompkins, who is a veteran lieutenant in the New London Fire Department. The men hugged and shook hands before Mayo went over and hugged another uncle who attended, Robert Tompkins, a captain in the Groton City Fire Department.
"It was a good feeling but very emotional," Mayo said afterward. "It's something I've only dreamed about."
Mayo was offered his job back on May 2 after Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said new information had come to light, including a report on the fire academy that concluded Mayo may have been treated unfairly during his training last year.
Mayo started work May 7.
After Mayo was rehired, Reuben F. Bradford, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the fire academy, offered Mayo the opportunity to finish the three days of training he had missed and to graduate with the current academy class.
Mayo did just that and admitted the remaining days of training, which included a 4.5-mile run, were a challenge but worth the effort.
After the graduation ceremony, Mayo came out in the hallway and hugged his two children — Adarius and Gabriela — and his fiance, Loretta Rivera. Gabriela wore a firefighter helmet Mayo had made for her in December, with the original hope that she would have worn it at his graduation that month.
"It was something he deserved before and it was great he was able to do it now," Rivera said of the graduation.
Among the supporters on hand was Scot X. Esdaile, president of the state NAACP chapter that championed Mayo's cause earlier this year.
"I'm really proud of him going through this," Esdaile said. "There are not too many that could endure this type of pressure. To get the grades he got and to keep pushing says a lot about him."
Also attending was Gary Tinney, president of the Firebirds, a black fraternal firefighter organization based in New Haven. Tinney, too, has been a vocal supporter of Mayo's fight to be rehired, and said the situation has been "heartwrenching."
"But he's still smiling, happy to make it, not just for himself but for his family," Tinney said of Mayo. "And again, he's accomplished something no one has in 34 years. I'm really happy for him."