Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, August 14, 2014
'The devil never sleeps' was his motto
Oscar McIntosh was city's first paid black firefighter

If you kept watch over Key West as part of the fire department that for 27 years included Oscar Leo McIntosh II, you knew his favorite motto:

"The devil never sleeps."

McIntosh had a penchant for the phrase, an age-old metaphor for the 24/7 job that could land him in a crisis at a moment's notice.

"Anything can happen at anytime, any days - holidays, birthdays," said Alex Vega, a retired firefighter and part of the Key West crew that drove to Tampa Sunday for McIntosh's funeral. "When you're in the fire department you get to see that firsthand. Anything can happen. Anyone can get hurt. That was one of his favorite sayings. I told the family at the funeral."

Key West-born and bred just like his parents, Oscar McIntosh, who was the city's first black paid firefighter, died Aug. 4 in Tampa.

He was 73. The cause was pancreatic cancer, a son said.

A prostate cancer survivor for several years, McIntosh's health failed fast after the pancreatic cancer diagnosis earlier this year.

McIntosh joined the fire department around 1966.

"He opened doors for many, showing a warrior spirit that did not bow to racism or overlook the untapped talents of others," his family wrote in his obituary.

McIntosh was known among friends and family as "The Big O" and they marveled at his heavy duty softball swing.

Trailblazing aside, though, McIntosh wasn't one to talk about his breakthrough, Vega said.

"He let his work speak for itself," said his namesake son, Oscar McIntosh III, 52, who lives in the family's Chapman Lane home. "He never said anything. He accomplished all this stuff and never said nothing."

McIntosh was born Sept. 5, 1940, the first of two children born to Oscar Leo McIntosh Sr. and Julia Welters McIntosh.

He attended grade school at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Key West and made first communion and confirmation at what was then St. Mary Start of the Sea Catholic Church.

At Frederick Douglass High School, he became known as "Sugarfoot" for his basketball skills.

He was a lead drummer in the Douglass marching band and, as an adult, played drums in the Welters Cornet Band and McKenzie's Jazz Quartet alongside his uncle, Frank Welters, an accomplished trumpeter.

Those who worked alongside him at the fire department also said McIntosh didn't bring up his "first" status.

"I guess he was a little modest," said Vega, 62, who started with the fire department in 1975. "He knew he was the first in Key West. We found out years later he was the second one in the state of Florida."

Vega was 16 when he first met McIntosh and later worked the same shift with him as a firefighter.

A plumber on the side, McIntosh also worked on renovating houses. He was the friend you could come right over to if you needed something at your own place fixed, said City Commissioner Billy Wardlow, a former Key West fire chief who was 22 when he joined the department.

"He'd come and help you," Wardlow said. "He was just an all-around great guy. You could talk to him about anything and he would have an answer for you. He knew a lot about the fire service. He loved working down on Simonton Street."

In July, Wardlow spent some time with McIntosh at a medical center in Tampa. Wardlow had happened to be near Tampa when a friend called with the news that McIntosh had suffered a stroke. He made a few calls and tracked him down to make a visit.

"He held my hand the whole time and we reminisced," Wardlow said.

During the long conversation, Wardlow said McIntosh sat up in his hospital bed to talk, prompting his wife to joke that what they had needed all along was a visit from his old friend.

Wardlow held a moment of silence in memory of McIntosh at the Aug. 5 commission meeting at Old City Hall.

Beating the devil

McIntosh is survived by his wife of 35 years, Janet McIntosh, and six children, Oscar Leo McIntosh III, Michael McIntosh, AnJanette O'Neal, Charmada Meeks, Jabari McIntosh and Ashanti Me Joy McIntosh.

His first three children were with his first wife, Veronica Taylor.

McIntosh was a firefighter during a painful economic era in Key West, the early 1980s.

"They were paying the men but we had guys retired and they wouldn't fill positions," Vega said. "The department dwindled down from 58 men to 43 men. We had lost maybe 15 guys. We were working short on a lot of shifts. They were working dangerously short."

On one of those "short" days in 1981, McIntosh was told by central station that he and two others would work the shift.

"Oscar said, 'You know the devil never sleeps. I need a captain down here because I'm not going to take the responsibility if something happens,'" Vega said. "He hung up the phone."

Within minutes, McIntosh and the crew were called to a fire on Angela Street where kids were trapped in a building, Vega said.

On the scene, the firefighters knocked down the blaze and, with the help of neighbors, pulled each child to safety, one by one.

But McIntosh, whom friends and neighbors remember as an easy-going, affable man with a smile for everyone, let everyone know that the short staff wasn't right, Vega said.

"Oscar gets upset and starts screaming, 'I told you the devil never sleeps!' It was a big scene."

McIntosh was disciplined on the spot, Vega said.

"He got suspended," he said. "That was Oscar. Standing up for what he believed was right no matter what the consequence."

At McIntosh's funeral service Sunday in Riverview, Vega told that story -- suspension and all.

Vega's final words Sunday, though, were directly to his departed friend and firefighter brother.

"I never told you this, but we beat the devil that day," Vega said, drawing cheers.

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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