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Nov 2, 2009 9:45 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Robert Paul Jeffries, first black Quogue firefighter, dies at 63

Editor's Note: To read the full obituary, pick up the Thursday, October 29, edition of The Southampton Press-Western Edition.
Nov 2, 2009 9:45 AM

Robert Paul Jeffries of Quogue, the man who broke down racial barriers when he sued to become the first African-American member of the Quogue Fire Department and was later elected chief, died last Thursday, October 22, at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx following an illness. He was 63.

Mr. Jeffries’s only child, Bill Kersnowski, remembered his father as a man who loved his hometown of Quogue Village and as someone who always stood up for what he believed in.

In 1970, Mr. Jeffries filed a claim with the New York State Division of Human Rights after the fire department denied him entry into the volunteer outfit for what he said were unfair reasons. The following year, the division ordered department leaders to “cease and desist from denying membership in the Quogue Fire Department because of race, creed, color or national origin,” and specifically added that they must admit Mr. Jeffries as their first black member.

Mr. Jeffries remained a member until his death last week and had served two stints as Quogue fire chief.

“He definitely had to fight racial barriers,” said Mr. Kersnowski, who was born four years after his father sued the fire department, and who now lives in Forest Hills. “I am so proud of him.”

About a half dozen longtime members of the Quogue Fire Department declined to comment when reached this week and asked about the reaction of firefighters when Mr. Jeffries first joined the volunteer unit nearly 40 years ago.

Quogue Village Board member Kim Payne, a longtime member of the fire department and who was a member when Mr. Jeffries came aboard in 1971, said that most of the members at the time did not share their opinions about Mr. Jeffries’s battle to be accepted as a volunteer firefighter. “It wasn’t something that was really talked about,” he said.

Still, the fire department remained a source of pride for Mr. Jeffries, and his son said he was always pushing for it to stay on top of the latest technologies.

Mr. Kersnowski, who grew up with his mother, Katherine, in Massachusetts, said he would spend a lot of time hanging out of the firehouse when visiting his father. “He used to take me for rides on the fire truck,” he said.

Current Quogue Village Fire Department Chief Chris Osborne said that although Mr. Jeffries was getting on in age, he continued to answer calls and later joined the department’s fire police after he became too ill to fight fires.

“He loved the fire department,” Chief Osborne said. “For most of his career, he was always a top responder.”

Mr. Kersnowski described his father as a well-dressed man who was known by virtually everyone in the community. He added that whenever he walks into a store in the area, people immediately know who he is because of a striking likeness to his father.

“You could call him gregarious,” Mr. Kersnowski said of his father. “He always had a joke or a smile for people.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Mr. Jeffries was an orphan and was eventually taken in by the Reverend Theodore Howard of the St. Paul AME Zion Church in the 1950s. He was later adopted by Christine and Gerard Jeffries of Quogue and spent the rest of his life living in the village.

He attended Westhampton Beach High School, where he played varsity football, according to his son. Mr. Jeffries enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and after receiving an honorable discharge, returned to the village he called home.

He attempted to join the fire department in 1970, but was not able to do so until the following year, after the New York State Human Rights Division ordered that the department appoint him as a firefighter.

Mr. Jeffries worked his way up through the fire department ranks and eventually served two separate two-year terms as chief. He served from 1979 until 1981, and again from 1996 until 1998.

He also worked for many years as an electrical engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton and ran a business on the side, Bob’s House and Lawn Maintenance. Mr. Kersnowski said his father gave many local African-American men their first job working for his company.

“He believed very much in helping the African-American community in the Hamptons,” he said.

Mr. Jeffries also worked hard to recruit others to his beloved fire department over the years. Longtime firefighter and former chief Cliff McKennett said it was Mr. Jeffries who convinced him to join the department more than 30 years ago. He said the two men were waiting for a table at Cliff’s Elbow Room in Jamesport when Mr. Jeffries talked him into joining.

“He was very much dedicated,” Mr. McKennett said. “It was a very big part of his life.”

Joseph Jahelka, who moved to Quogue in the mid-1970s, said that by the time he joined the fire department in 1976, Mr. Jeffries’s race had become almost a non-issue. “I would say the fact that he was elected to be chief is proof to that being overcome,” he said.

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The good die too young-rest in peace.
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Oct 27, 09 5:18 PM
I knew him only in passing, and in seeing him at 7-11 Mill Rd for coffee but he could always be counted on for a smile and a handshake. A thread in the tapestry of the East End.
By Terry (380), Southampton on Oct 27, 09 6:10 PM
The sad loss of a dedicated volunteer who served as Chief twice (1979- 1981 & 1996- 1998). RIP Chief ....
By Little D (9), East Quogue on Oct 27, 09 6:16 PM
1 member liked this comment
Very sad loss, he always had a smile for my boys and very genuine with them. They will miss Mr. Jeffries, too. RIP Chief.
By mom2miniD's (1), East Quogue on Oct 27, 09 8:05 PM
By peoplefirst (787), Southampton on Oct 27, 09 8:50 PM
By politcal pawn (121), Flanders on Oct 27, 09 9:07 PM
He shall be missed. God Bless.
By bobba (39), southampton on Oct 27, 09 9:28 PM
Bob, You always had a kind word and smile for my family and I. You will be missed by all your brother firefighters. RIP Chief!
By hb61 (2), Hampton Bays on Oct 28, 09 8:43 AM
Bob always made me smile. I'll miss you Bob.
By hamptoniteforlife (15), WHB on Oct 28, 09 10:01 AM
A good man. Gone to soon.
By pstevens (406), Wilmington on Oct 28, 09 10:09 AM
I had the honor of meeting Bob and doing some work for him a few times. I'm very sad to hear of his passing. He was a very nice guy.
By double standard (1506), quogue on Oct 28, 09 4:11 PM
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bob and his family.
By SH Local (8), Southampton on Oct 29, 09 12:19 AM
The one element the article missed about Bob was that while he successfully broke down racial barriers, Bob didn't hold a grudge against either the community or the department that initially refused to accept hijm. His sense of humor and good nature allowed him to turn those that may have been against him at one time into supporters and friends over a lifetime. I know I will miss his handshake, smile and smart a@# comments whether at the fire scene, 7-11 or wherever else our paths would cross.
By Native Westhamptonite (14), Westhampton on Oct 29, 09 3:26 PM
May he rest in Peace and may his family be comforted by the fond memories of a great man who served his community with all his heart.
By EQMama (29), East Quogue on Oct 29, 09 3:31 PM
A HERO in every sense of the word........an awesome man with a stellar reputation....rest in peace, Chief.
By MaryMac (43), Riverhead on Oct 30, 09 10:02 AM
Far too young. So sad.
By goldenrod (505), southampton on Nov 2, 09 10:01 AM