Robert Paul Jeffries

Robert Paul Jeffries Credit: Handout

His is an unlikely love story with his community that began 40 years ago.

Robert Paul Jeffries, who died last week at age 63, had wanted to use his Navy firefighting training to volunteer in his hometown of Quogue after returning from service in Vietnam. But he would have to fight a more powerful enemy than fire to get there.

He was the first black firefighter in the village's volunteer department, a position he earned only after filing a complaint against it in 1969. In 1979, he would become its chief.

Jeffries was born in Brooklyn in 1946. His father was a soldier who had stopped over in New York while serving in World War II. His mother abandoned him as an infant, and he went to an orphanage, he would later tell his son.

Jeffries was adopted by Christine and Gerard Jeffries, who lived in Quogue, said his son, William Paul Kersnowski.

Jeffries attended Westhampton Beach High School, where he played varsity football, according to his son. But Jeffries often got into trouble. Years later, he would acknowledge that he was repeatedly called on the carpet for "fooling around in class and arguing with teachers."

He also would say that he was asked to leave the school at 16.

By then, the nation was at war in Vietnam, and Jeffries later enlisted in the Navy. He served four years. It was a decision that changed his life, his son said.

"He became a man in the Navy," Kersnowski said. "He matured. He told me that he loved the camaraderie, loved being of service. I think that when he came home, he went to the fire department looking for that camaraderie, that opportunity to do service."

And so it was that Jeffries, 23, applied to join the Quogue fire department. It was June 1969. "I learned how to fight fires [aboard ships] in the service and I wanted to keep my hand in," he said at the time.

Jeffries said he had no trouble getting four department members to sponsor him. He said he passed the physical, sent in the required fee. On Aug. 4, however, he received a letter saying that his application had been voted upon and rejected.

"I wanted to know why," Jeffries said. And because the department would give him no reason, he filed a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights.

During a 1970 hearing, a department official said Jeffries wasn't denied admission because of racial bias, but because of his reputation as a high school troublemaker. In a decision released a few months later, the state determined that Jeffries was denied admission because of racial bias. The state ordered that he be admitted to the fire department and that the department make sweeping changes in its membership process.

"I think the order is just," Jeffries told a reporter at the time. "I live in Quogue. . . . I feel it is my duty to give to the community as much as I can."

He joined the department in 1971. Eight years later, Jeffries was elected chief. He served a second two-year term in 1996. And continued to volunteer until he died, of complications from a heart ailment, on Oct. 22 at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Jeffries, who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory and had a lawn care service, was well-known throughout the community.

"He loved his church . . . ," said the Rev. John D. Greene, pastor of St. Paul AME Zion Church in Quogue. "He worshiped the fire department. When the alarm went off, he would run out of the church. He had a tough time getting in, but once he was there, he devoted himself to it for 45 years."

Thursday, the firehouse bore the black bunting of mourning.

After his service, his body will take a last ride on the department's antique fire truck. "My father loved the department and he loved Quogue," Kersnowski said.