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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Former Arkansas Democrat Associate Editor Meredith Oakley, who started with the Democrat in 1976 and stayed there until she resigned this year, agrees that McIntosh's instability muted his power as a role model. While she said that McIntosh did good works in the community in his early years, "his ego got in the way."

"He was largely a creature of his own good deeds and the media," Oakley said. "Over the years he was very erratic... he attacked [Pulaski County Prosecutor] Lee Munson at one point. He attacked Bob Starr." In her last exchange with McIntosh around 15 years ago, Oakley said that she had to threaten to call security to keep the exchange from getting physical, the only time in her 30-plus year career that she ever felt physically threatened on the job.

"He did good in his early years, but then he went a little nuts," she said. "There was, in his later years, a news blackout on him. The local media just wouldn't cover him because he was pamphleteering, kind of like [evangelical preacher Tony] Alamo, except he was personally attacking people ... he just became totally untrustworthy and didn't do much good anymore."

Oakley said that while McIntosh started out with good intentions, the fact that he "crossed a lot of lines and offended a lot of people," means he will likely be known more for being The Sweet Potato Pie King than a civic leader to future generations.

"He was just a poor, uneducated person who tried to do good," she said. "I don't know what was driving him. I like to think it was out of the goodness of his heart. He wouldn't be the first person to use the media with malice aforethought, but I do think he could be accused of that. I think he really did start with his heart in the right place."

Even those who butted heads with McIntosh couldn't help but like him for his tenacity. Former Pulaski County Sheriff and U.S. Rep. Tommy Robinson had his share of dealings with McIntosh over the years (including an incident in which he threatened to take a chainsaw to a cross McIntosh had intended to crucify himself on in front of the sheriff's office), but says he bears him no ill will. Or, as Robinson put it: "He's not on my Enemies List."

"Say, back then, was sort of a crusader," Robinson said. "In his own mind, what he did was altruistic and for the right purposes. Most of the time it was, but sometimes it wasn't. He'd let certain people influence him and talk him into things he probably shouldn't have done, but I can't say one bad thing about Say McIntosh ... I've been victimized by him, but like I said, I don't have any ill will toward him or hard feelings whatsoever." 

At the corner of MLK Boulevard and Daisy Gatson Bates Drive, there's a field of white crosses, each one representing another person killed in Little Rock. Say McIntosh and other community leaders have been putting them up there since the early 1990s. There were years during the Bad Old Days of Little Rock's gang wars when the field was lined row on row. These days, thank God, there's only a relative few. This is where I met Say McIntosh, his wife Derotha, and his friend Earnest Franklin in person for the first time.

With the punishing heat of late summer beating down and Mrs. McIntosh holding a black umbrella over Say's head to spare him some of the sun, we snapped a few quick photos, then adjourned to Robinson's Mortuary at the corner of 12th and MLK to chat in the air conditioning. Throughout most of our conversation, McIntosh sat silently off to one side, speaking with pained difficulty only when asked a direct question. He doesn't make speeches these days, though the mischievous grin and twinkle in his eye when you ask him about his various run-ins of yore lets you know that he's still in there.

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