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Say McIntosh: The lion in winter

Robert "Say" McIntosh is older, quieter and calmer these days, but he's lived a life full of personal and political drama.

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Robert "Say" McIntosh is not the man he once was.

At 67 years old, he shuffles now. His hands shake. When you ask him a question, it takes him awhile to formulate an answer, and when that answer comes, it's usually a gravelly exclamation of only a sentence or two, as if each thought is a keg of nails he has to physically lift over his lips and teeth. This, from the man who once openly taunted bigots, black icons, mayors, governors, senators and a man who would become president.

For those reading this who aren't old enough or long enough in Little Rock to remember Say McIntosh as the professional provocateur whose name and politically-fueled media events were in the newspaper or on TV on almost a weekly basis in the 1980s and early 1990s, it's hard to fathom just how deep the feelings about him ran in this town once. Who McIntosh is depends on who you ask about him. To some, he was a civil rights leader. For others: A hero. A blowhard. A lunatic. A champion. A character. A villain. A violent man. A philanthropist. An opportunist. A shill. A pioneer. An attention junkie, drawn to the TV cameras as a moth is to a flame.

Funny thing is, he's probably all that — or, at least, he once was. People are rarely simple enough to be accurately boiled down in the newspaper. McIntosh definitely isn't. Given that the thread of his life is woven through two or three decades of Little Rock history, though, it's probably important to try.

Time may cause all things to pass away, but the frustration that McIntosh could incite in his prime tends to linger. There are undoubtedly still old grayheads in this town who will see his face on the cover of this paper and wad it up in disgust. One thing is for sure, though: He's the kind of guy who would take that as a compliment.    

It probably says a lot about McIntosh — the real McIntosh, not the media reflection he crafted — that the first mention of him to be found in the old back-issues of the Arkansas Gazette is a story about him donating his time, resources and energy so hungry people could eat.

McIntosh, who moved from Osceola — first to Woodson, then to Granite Mountain —with his family when he was 6 years old, spent much of his life involved in the restaurant business as a 9-to-5 job, starting work as a waiter at Franke's Cafeteria downtown when he was a teen-ager. He eventually owned a series of restaurants in the black community, where he served up barbecue, plate lunches and his locally-famous sweet potato pie — earning him the possibly self-bestowed title of "The Sweet Potato Pie King" of Little Rock. One reason why those restaurants never tended to last long-term is foreshadowed in the Gazette's Nov. 25, 1976, story about McIntosh preparing a free Thanksgiving dinner for 500 impoverished Little Rock residents at the first incarnation of his restaurant at High Street (now Martin Luther King) and Wright Avenue. As his friends will tell you, he has always been generous to a fault, and was usually broke because he gave away everything he had, including paying for at least part of the dozens of bikes, dolls and other toys he handed out to poor children every year at Christmastime as Little Rock's premier black Santa Claus.

In the Gazette story, McIntosh said he was proud of what he was doing. "We're really having a good time," he said. "This is the way I like to live." That same year, Gov. David Pryor declared Christmas Eve "Say McIntosh Day." Pryor wound up presenting the signed proclamation to a roomful of reporters without the guest of honor because he couldn't find McIntosh — who was, it turned out, at the Arkansas Baptist College gym arranging toys for that day's giveaway to needy children.

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