Al Whitehead: A Remembrance
Al Whitehead, former president and secretary-treasurer of the IAFF, died this week, he was ninety-one.
I met him in the mid-80s, perhaps at the Cincinnati convention; he was impressive in person, fit, well-dressed, articulate and youthful.
It was a very curious time, Jack Gannon was president of the IAFF and Al held the number two spot but wanted to be president eventually.
Elections were held every two years and Whitehead needed time to build support which meant while he wanted Gannon’s job he also needed to back Gannon (and block Gannon’s opponents) until he was ready to run for president himself.
He was a busy man at convention time, running for reelection as secretary-treasurer while also making sure Gannon was reelected. It was an open secret: Dusty Alward, who ran against Gannon and lost, thanked “both of his opponents” acknowledging that he was effectively running against both Gannon and Whitehead.
Whitehead, as secretary-treasurer, rescued the IAFF from the dire financial straits it was in at the time. The IAFF was flat broke and dependent on rescue loans, teetering on bankruptcy from poor or absent financial management.
Enter Harold Schaitberger.
Schaitberger was on Gannon’s staff at the IAFF but went all in with Whitehead early on. If Jack Gannon was George Washington, Harold Schaitberger was Benedict Arnold. And like Arnold, Schaitberger was a superb spy, relentless and able to play the long game.
By 1988, Whitehead was ready to make his move and Schaitberger was faithfully at his side courting votes and laying the groundwork, all while still working at the IAFF for Gannon.
(I was a young local president at the time doing my part for Al and predictably enthralled at being so close to power.)
In the heat of a Miami summer convention, Whitehead won in a landslide and Harold Schaitberger’s payoff was being appointed as his principal assistant.
Al professionalized the IAFF, remaking it into a modern and contemporary labor union. I attribute that to his being a west-coaster, unencumbered by stodgy tradition and ideas. He was a true progressive when the IAFF was sorely in need of one.
He was also cunning and loved power, of course, but with a difference. In contrast to Schaitberger, I don’t think Al wanted to “own” the IAFF, he simply wanted to run it as he saw fit.
Perhaps predictably, Schaitberger, occupying a position of power so close to the throne, began to plot to succeed Whitehead just as Whitehead had done with Gannon.
It’s the IAFF way, apparently.
By 1999, Schaitberger was itching to have Whitehead retire at any cost; he even requested that I ask Al to retire, something I would not do. Relations between the two were badly frayed and up and down by the day, often by the hour.
In 2000, Schaitberger ran for IAFF president as Al retired but don’t think for a minute that the convention was a love-fest. Al was on the war path actually reducing grown men to tears, as he held on to the last. The now deceased Vincent Bollon, then secretary-treasurer, witnessing Al at his worst, commented to me in his droll fashion that it was “nut-cutting time.”
When former IAFF president Jack Gannon died neither Whitehead nor Schaitberger attended his memorial service. Instead, they sent George Burke, IAFF media director, in their stead. As official notice to the membership, Gannon’s obit was a coupon sized photo on the back page of the magazine.