When retired Sanford Fire Department Captain Donald Quick was a little boy who loved fire trucks and looked up to fire fighters for their bravery and courage, he never imagined that he’d become one – or that he’d make history doing it.
But after a successful career in the United States Navy as a crash and salvage fire fighter that included two tours of duty in Vietnam, Capt. Quick returned to Sanford and had to decide what was next for him.
“I had a good friend in Virginia who had just gotten hired by his city,” Capt. Quick remembers. “I knew Sanford had never hired a minority fire fighter, and I decided I wanted to be the first one.”
Capt. Quick didn’t waste any time. He retired from the Navy on February 24, 1975, and the very next day submitted his application to the Sanford Fire Department.
During that time period, Sanford was going through a period of heavy annexation. The Sanford Fire Department needed more fire fighters than ever before to ensure staffing could keep up with a growing city’s needs.
On December 18, 1975, Capt. Quick got the call from the Sanford Fire Department offering him a job. On December 19, he joined the department along with eight other new hires and officially became the first Black fire fighter for the City of Sanford.
Capt. Quick knew that breaking the color barrier in the fire department would be tough, but he set his mind and heart to doing the best job he could, no matter the circumstances.
“Growing up in this community, everyone knew the fire fighters were a tight-knit group,” he shares. “They grew up together, had the same backgrounds, and were like family to each other.”
As happened to many minorities at the time, Capt. Quick found he wasn’t very welcomed. “I was spending 24 hours at a time with people who didn’t want to eat with me, didn’t want to spend time around me, and didn’t want to sleep near me,” he recounts. “No one changed the words they used or the jokes they told; it was as if I wasn’t even there. It was hard.”
But Capt. Quick had two things that got him through those early days in the fire service. One was the motto he repeated to himself over and over: “If I can’t make it here, I can’t make it anywhere.” Sanford was no different than anywhere else, and Capt. Quick believed he’d find the same attitudes anywhere he went – so he might as well face them down in his own hometown.
The second was his true source of comfort, guidance, and support – his parents, especially his mother, Ruth. “She taught me that my purpose was to serve God, and that I should live my life according to His purpose,” Capt. Quick shares. “That helped me see things from a different perspective and got me through.”
Generations of change
With his faith and his family on his side, Capt. Quick prevailed and served 28 years in the department, rising through the ranks to Lieutenant and Captain before his retirement in 2003. As the department turned over with younger fire fighters, the environment became one that respected and valued all members, regardless of their races or backgrounds.
Current Deputy Fire Chief Ken Cotten fondly remembers his years as a young fire fighter when Capt. Quick was his supervisor. “He was a fair and kind boss, but he was going to make sure you did your job and did it right,” says Cotten, who joined the department in the late 1980s.
Cotten has heard the stories of Capt. Quick’s early years with the department and is proud of how far the department has come since then. “It was rough, hard,” Cotten says, “but when we came along, we didn’t see things the way the old timers did; we respected our captain and trusted his judgement.”
By “we,” Cotten is referring to fellow fire fighters like Battalion Chief Lonnie Kiker who also served under Capt. Quick’s leadership and shares Cotten’s good memories. “You knew not to mess around, but you also knew he knew what he was doing,” Kiker says. “He had a lot of knowledge to share and I was glad to learn from him.”
Despite the hardships he faced, Capt. Quick enjoyed his job and was proud to help protect his city – and his final years went a long way toward healing old wounds. “Those last years were the best of my entire career,” he shares. “That crew became my family, and I became theirs.”
When Capt. Quick retired on April 1, 2003, he did so with the respect and camaraderie befitting his years of service to both his city and his country.
A place for everyone
Would Capt. Quick recommend a career in the fire service to other young people of color? “Oh, absolutely!" he answers emphatically.
“Being a fire fighter is fulfilling and challenging, and it gives you an opportunity to serve the community while doing things you never knew you were capable of,” he says. In addition to giving back, it’s important for people to feel seen and understood during times of crisis.
Sanford Fire Chief Matt Arnold agrees. “We want our department to be a true representation of our community, which means we need fire fighters from all walks of life,” Arnold says. “Our department is a place for everyone, and we welcome everyone who feels called to a life of service.”
When Capt. Quick retired, his crew gifted him with a commemorative ax from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which he displays prominently in the home he shares with his wife Doreen, who he married just a few years after joining the department. Capt. Quick and Doreen have one son, Nigel, who lives in Apex now.
While he never expected to become a fire fighter or to make history by doing so, Capt. Quick doesn’t regret the path life took him on. When asked how he feels about having opened the door for those coming behind him, Capt. Quick answers humbly, “it was an uphill struggle, but I am grateful for everything it brought me.”
Photos from top:
- Donald Quick as a young fire fighter after joining the Sanford Fire Department
- Lt. Donald Quick in the early 1990s with the other officers of the Sanford Fire Department, including then-Chief Bost and Asst. Chief Wayne Barber.
- Retired Capt. Donald Quick on February 2, 2024 at Central Fire Station.
- The Sanford Herald photo from Nov. 8, 1976 of Donald Quick less than one year into his 28 years of service with the department.
- The ax Capt. Quick was presented at his retirement, which was a gift from his crew.
- Donald Quick's parents Donnell Quick and Ruth Feaster Quick.