He was ahead of his time, fearless, respected by all firefighters, a great person to work with and one of the top fire chief’s in the country. He was a firefighter who would go into dangerous places others would not dream of entering. These are just some of the words used to remember former Saint John Fire Chief, Percy Clark, following his death in December 1996.
Percy Robert Clark was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick on October 15, 1927. He was the second oldest in a family of one girl and two boys. His father was Robert A. Clark and his mother was Beatrice (Vye) Clark. Both were originally from the Kouchibouguac area, but were living in Meductic, where Robert worked on the railway and Beatrice was a school teacher. In 1929, Percy’s father moved his family to Saint John and purchased a property on Metcalf St., in the city’s North End. He found a job as a milkman with General Dairies.
Percy Clark was educated in the Saint John public school system, attending Lorne, Dufferin, Alexander and Vocational School. In 1945, he went to sea on the Canadian merchant ship Laurentian, sailing into ports along the Labrador coast. One year later, he signed up for a five year term with the Royal Canadian Navy. After completing his basic training and a Radar course, he served on HMCS Haida and HMCS Warrior. During this time he also trained as a gunner.
In February 1948, Clark was drafted to HMCS Magnificent—also known as the Maggie—which was being built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Canadian Navy. He went there as part of a crew to bring the newly purchased aircraft carrier to Canada. During his stay in Belfast, Percy met a young woman named Monica Bingham. By the time the Magnificent sailed for Canada, the couple had fallen in love, become engaged and were making plans for the future.
In October 1948, Monica arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, aboard the RMS Aquitania. She travelled to Saint John and moved in with Percy’s parents at 203 Metcalf St. On February 5, 1949, Percy and Monica were married in the Saint John Portland United Church. They would have four daughters—Paula, Brenda, Michele and Shelly Ann—who died in infancy.
Following their marriage, Clark was successful in getting a land posting, where he would spend the next 18 months. He was sent to HMCS Queen Charlotte, a reserve station in Charlottetown P.E.I. In September 1950, Clark was ordered to report to the tribal class destroyer, HMCS Nootka. The Nookta was preparing to join the war effort in Korea. The ship left Halifax on November 25th and Clark spent nine months in a war zone, bombarding the coastal ports of North Korea.
Having completed his five-year term, Clark was honourably discharged on December 9, 1951, with the rank of Leading Seaman. For his service he was awarded the Korea Medal and the United Nations Service Medal.
Clark returned to Saint John and quickly found employment. On January 27, 1952, he secured a job as a firefighter with the Saint John Fire Department. He immediately became involved with the affairs of the union and moved up the ranks. In 1954, he was elected vice-president of Local 771, of the International Association of Firefighters and in 1955 became president of the local. This was a remarkable achievement. At the age of twenty-seven, after being a member for only three years, he was chosen by his fellow workers for the top position in the local.
At this point Percy Clark’s career as a labour leader began in earnest. He became chairman of the negotiating committee, and was the union’s representative on the pension board. He was local 771’s delegate to the Saint John District Labour Council, where he served as the Secretary-Treasurer for a number of years. One of his notable achievements as president of the local was to get the provincial government to pass a Heart and Lung bill for firefighters. This was the first such legislation to be established for firefighters in Canada. He continued to educate himself, taking numerous trade union courses, including the trade union program at Harvard University.
During his time as president, Clark expanded the role of the local union by getting his members involved in a number of charitable organizations. He became president of the local chapter of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and got the local union to provide a special school bus for children. The off-duty firefighters would take turns driving the bus. Following the 1958 Springhill mine disaster, he organized the Springhill Disaster Relief Fund. He acted as chairman and was successful in raising $18,000, a considerable amount at the time. Clark involved the local union in a number of other charitable causes, such as the Tuberculosis Christmas Seal campaign.
Clark’s career as a firefighter was also impressive. He took numerous courses on firefighting and moved up the ranks within the department. He was a student of the Institute of Fire Engineers, became a certified diver and was a member of the Fire Department SCUBA diving team. He was promoted to Captain of Training in 1962 and conducted training courses, not only in Saint John, but for other fire departments in the Atlantic Region. During the Fire Department Instructors Conference, held in Memphis, Tennessee, he was elected Vice-President of the International Society of Fire Services Instructors.
Clark’s abilities as a leader were getting recognized outside his local union. At the 1960 convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) he was elected Vice-President for the 15th District. This was the first time someone from the Atlantic Region was elected a Vice-President of the International Association. His predecessor was from a Montreal local. The election meant Clark was now spending more time attending to the affairs of the union. His new position meant more travel around the Atlantic Region and Quebec, dealing with any problems that might arise. He also spent a considerable amount of time organizing new locals in the region, including some in Newfoundland, where Premier Joey Smallwood attempted to ban international unions. This did not stop Clark from holding clandestine meetings in the homes of firefighters and successfully re-organizing the St. John’s local. He was the IAFF number one man during the 1969 Montreal firefighters strike.
In 1969, Clark was asked by the union to become a full-time staff representative. A firm believer in the trade union movement, the first thing Clark did was to organize the IAFF staff members into a staff union and became its first president. In 1970, he was promoted to the position of Director of Organization. This position required that he work out of the Association’s head office in Washington, D.C. Clark and his family moved to Washington, where he began the difficult task of organizing firefighters in the anti-union “Right to Work” states of the South. It was not unusual for him to receive death threats. Clark sometimes required a police escort, as he travelled through communities that were anti-union and opposed to union organizers.
In 1972, Saint John Fire Chief Millard Clifford announced his plans to retire. The City Councillors were well aware of Percy Clark’s leadership qualities and his abilities as a firefighter. They instructed city manager, James Perkins, to contact Clark in Washington and see if he would be interested in returning to Saint John as Chief of the fire department. Clark’s Washington position required him to be away from home a lot and his family had never been overly happy about living in Washington. After some soul searching, he accepted the offer.
Clark took over as Saint John Fire Chief on February 15, 1973. Being very familiar with the city and the fire department, he wasted little time in getting down to work. He went before Council with seven recommendations, stating the most pressing need was the installation of a sprinkler system in City Hall—this recommendation, however, was never acted on, and in 1977 twenty-one people died in the Saint John City Hall jail fire. The report of fire investigators concluded that a sprinkler system would have saved most, if not all, of the twenty-one victims.
Chief Clark made numerous changes to the fire service, resulting in the Saint John Fire Department moving from a Class 4 to a Class 2 on the International Insurers Advisory Organizations fire rating charts. This included, expanding the training program and a re-organization of the department, which resulted in eight fire-demand zones, each with its own district chief. He introduced the rescue squad and convinced the city to build an additional fire station on the East Side of the city.
Chief Clark elevated the profile of the fire department and the city to the national level, when he was elected President of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. He held the position for two terms. As a result of his work with this association, he was chosen to be part of a seven person delegation to visit China, Hong Kong and Japan. His role was to explain the firefighting techniques used by Canadian firefighters. Clark was also appointed as a member of the National Research Council’s advisory committee on fire service and the federal transport minister’s advisory council on transportation of dangerous goods. He still held these positions at the time of his retirement.
In 1983, Clark was diagnosed with a multiple sclerosis-type of disease called “Oliveo Ponto Cerebral Atrophy.” As a result, he announced that he would be retiring on November 26, 1984. He stated that he wanted to get out while his health was good enough to do other things. He said he was not interested in any salary position, but wanted to do some work as an unsalaried fire consultant in developing countries. He had been in communications with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). So far there were no openings, but his name was on the list. Unfortunately, he was never able to proceed with these plans. His health continued to deteriorate to the point where he was eventually confined to a wheelchair.
For his tremendous contributions, Clark was made a honourary life member of scores of firefighter locals and received many other citations over the years, including the Queens Silver Jubilee Medal. He was always held in high esteem by the Saint John firefighters, not only for his work as a labour leader, but also for how he ran the fire department when he was their Chief. Following his retirement, Clark was invited to a ceremony at Local 771’s union hall, where they unveiled his portrait. He is the only former Saint John fire chief whose picture hangs in the firefighters union hall.
Chief Clark passed away on December 12, 1996. He was 69. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, no doubt a result of some of the severe smoke inhalation he had suffered over the years. Forthright, honest, fearless, visionary were some of the terms used to describe how he would be remembered. Edis Flewwelling, who served as mayor during Clark’s time as chief, described him as one of the top fire chiefs in the country; “He was well qualified. When he was chief, the Saint John department came first in many contests. He was a gentleman and a great man to deal with. He knew what he was doing.”
Percy Clark and his wife Monica—who died in 2013—are buried in Cedar Hill Extension Cemetery, in West Saint John.