Southgate lays to rest its oldest firefighter

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On the night of Tuesday, Feb. 28, 93-year-old Southgate firefighter and Navy veteran Melvin “Mel” Whitehead was last seen at the Southgate VFW Post 3186, his daily hangout where he’d have a few beers.

Around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 1, firefighters found him deceased on the side of Route 8 in Fort Thomas, lying next to his car. It’s believed he got confused heading home to Grand Towers in Fort Thomas because he was in a section closed to through traffic. His car wasn’t damaged and he didn’t have any obvious injuries.

“He tried to get out of his car, I guess, and couldn’t make it or something,” Southgate Fire Chief John Beatsch told LINK nky. “They don’t really know what happened, if it was a medical thing or if it was just an accident. When you get that old, it’s not a shock that somebody dies. It’s just sad he died like that.”

Whitehead was Southgate’s oldest living member of the fire department. He joined in 1969 and started off as a volunteer. He later left firefighting and EMS and became the department’s photographer. Two weeks before a devastating fire at Beverly Hills Supper Club broke out, he and firefighters held a fire drill there. Whitehead and Beatsch both helped extinguish the fire on that night.

After retiring around 2012, Whitehead attended meetings, maintained the right to vote and helped with fundraisers. Aside from working for the fire department, Whitehead also worked for the Campbell County Cable Board and filmed city council meetings.

In 2019, Whitehead hit the milestone of 50 years of active service in the fire department. He is one of five other firefighters with 50 years of volunteer service who has his name on a bench located outside the fire department building.

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“I joined the fire department in 1972, so Mel was already there,” Beatsch said. “The entire time I’ve been there, Mel’s been there. When I needed pictures, he would give me pictures. He was a good old guy.”

Whitehead was known as “the old timer.”

“A lot of times when we had our meetings, they’d go through new business, old business, and they’d say old business, and they’d look and say, ‘Mel’s here,’ and then they would go on,” Beatsch said. “Mel was an inspiration for the younger guys to see a guy that old who still took an interest.”

Mel Whitehead, seen kneeling on the far right, was Southgate’s oldest living firefighter. He’d served for more than 50 years. The photo was taken in 1976 or 1977. Photo by Southgate fire department

Steve Bridewell, president of Southgate’s Optimist Club, said his father was a firefighter, and through him he knew Whitehead his entire life. Whitehead was also a member of the Optimist Club, and Bridewell would see Whitehead at Tri-State Photographic Society meetings.

“He was a quiet guy who never really made no gruff about nothing,” Bridewell said.

Years ago, Whitehead’s wife, Carolyn, a founding member of the fire department’s Ladies Auxiliary, passed away; he leaves behind two sons, a brother, grandkids, and six great-grandkids.

A mass was held for Whitehead on March 8 at St. Therese Church in Southgate.

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