Owen Roberts reflects on a lifetime of public service
Roberts wanted to continue serving the people of Versailles as a city councilman.
Others told him that he couldn’t win a council seat because he’d been a police officer for too long. Roberts proved them wrong, but says he was “totally surprised” when he was the highest vote-getter in that first campaign and several more elections during his 25 years on council.
Other than a fear of dogs, which sometimes prevented him from knocking on a door or two, Roberts says campaigning was never a chore. And his high vote counts meant people – even those he arrested as a police officer – remembered him for being fair-minded.
“I just treated people nicely. It didn’t cost me anything,” he says. “I’ve always been that way, and I’ll be that way when I’m retired from this. It’s just me.”
Reflecting on his 55 years of public service and his decision not to seek reelection in November, Roberts says, “I wish it didn’t have to end.” Now 82, Roberts knew he wanted to become a police officer when he was 6 years old. “I just loved to carry guns,” he says with a smile. “I carried a gun – when I was a kid in school – on my side.” Of course, back then, his sidearm was “just a toy gun.”
Roberts says he was pumping gas at his brother’s service station on Lexington Road – now Queen’s Marathon – when Versailles Police Chief Robert Y. Brown asked him, “How’d you like to come and work for me?”
The starting pay was only $60 a week, but Chief Brown was giving a 27-year-old Roberts an opportunity to do what he’d always wanted to do.
So, during an era when other officers at the department were leaving to take better paying jobs at Texas Instruments and other local factories, Roberts chose to stay on the job because he got to help people. That’s what he liked most about being a police officer. Versailles was a lot quieter when Roberts became a police officer in October 1963. There typically wasn’t much traffic after 10 o’clock at night, he says.
A bell outside the courthouse alerted officers to pick up the phone for an emergency call – whenever they didn’t have access to a radio in their police car.
“We only had two cars, and they were broke down most of the time. We’d drive the chief’s personal car,” says Roberts, who shared a story about using CPR to help save a man’s life at Wilson’s Pool Room.
For years, the man’s family didn’t know the name of the police officer who saved their loved one’s life. Roberts now goes to Sunday School with one of the man’s daughters, and “the family is still appreciative… today,” he says.
Another memory from his career in uniform sticks with him.
A Volkswagen bus had flipped upside down on the U.S. 60 Bypass. He’ll never forget a lady screaming, “My baby. My baby.” So Roberts rushed to her vehicle pulling out clothes and then finding her baby – a cat.
Roberts says he’ll also never forget what longtime Versailles Mayor Charlie Reed did for him – visiting the hospital after he’d suffered two heart attacks and underwent open heart surgery in 1983.
When Mayor Reed told the fallen officer not to worry about his job, Roberts says, “That helped me to get well.” And he’s been fortunate to not have any more heart-related problems or other health scares since.
“Still doing the same thing I did the first year (after the heart attacks),” says Roberts. “I walk three miles every morning.” He wakes up at 4:30 for his walk at Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, but also takes a nap or two during the day.
Roberts has served as a councilman under the leadership of three mayors: Reed, Fred Siegelman and now Brian Traugott. All three did a good job for the people of Versailles, he says before sharing another memory about Reed.
“I liked Charlie, but Charlie and I, we kind of bumped heads because Charlie thought I was going to run for mayor against him. And actually
I was going to (run), but I decided I didn’t want any part of (becoming) mayor,” says Roberts, who also served his country as a paratrooper with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division for three years (1956, ’57 and ’58).
Being mayor was “too demanding. And it’s more demanding today than it ever was. It really is,” he adds.
Eventually, Roberts says he supported Siegelman during his successful mayoral campaign against Reed in 1998, describing Traugott’s predecessor as “the most energetic man that I’ve ever been around.”
Reflecting on his approach at council meetings, Roberts says, “If I have something to say, I say it, but… no, I don’t talk a lot.”
There are only two regular council meetings a month, but Roberts says, “you may have five or six committee meetings or special meetings…” He says that doesn’t include the close to 100 ribbon cuttings that he’s attended to welcome new businesses to the community, “and it didn’t hurt politics either,” he adds, laughing.
Patricia Ann, his wife of nearly 29 years, accompanies him at most of the ribbon cuttings and council meetings, as well as the campaign trail “because he wants me with him,” she says.
“It was just like we were in it together. And it’s been that way ever since,” she adds.
“It’s just been a partnership.”
A retired teacher, Patricia Ann says she didn’t fall in love with Roberts because he was a policeman. She loved him for being him, and has always appreciated his dedication as a councilman.
It’s a role that’s been a large part of Roberts’ life so he’ll remain active in local politics – offering support when he’s asked.
“These people are my friends, and I hope they’re my friends until I die. So, yes, I’ll be around,” says Roberts, who always loved being a part of the political process and campaigning for office.
“It’s going to take me awhile to get used to not being busy,” says Roberts. “I cannot sit still. I love to be busy.” He doesn’t have any hobbies – fishing, hunting or golf – but does enjoy watching sports, including his grandchildren’s games, and wants to do more volunteering and will continue serving as president – for the third go-round – of the Versailles Lions Club.
Roberts likes telling people, “I’ve been young and I’ve been old. Young is better,” he says laughing. That’s why he knew this is the time for him to leave his council seat.
He looks back on his years as a councilman – citing several accomplishments and two highlights of his service. Being a part of council decisions to rename Gregory Court in honor of longtime councilman Luther Bland and naming a park on Douglas Avenue for longtime public works employee Lewis Walton are special to Roberts because both men were “very deserving,” he says. “I was really happy about that.”