CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts passed away Thursday morning at the age of 80. Roberts served four terms as mayor from 1983-1997.
Earlier this week, the new complex at the old Farmer's Market on 11th Street was recently turned into the Gene Roberts Public Service Complex. He was unable to attend the dedication ceremony. Mayor Ron Littlefield praised Roberts as "a quiet, gentle force in the transformation of Chattanooga during the past four decades. His accomplishments and contributions to this city are too numerous to list. I was so fortunate to know him and work with him."
Born in Chattanooga, Roberts graduated from Chattanooga High School, served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and returned to Chattanooga as a copy editor and reporter for the Chattanooga News Free Press. In 1958, Roberts graduated from the University of Chattanooga and rejoined the newspaper as a reporter. He left the newspaper in 1960 to become the Public Information Officer for Mayor P.R. (Rudy) Olgiati. Following Olgiati's term as mayor, Roberts joined the FBI as a special agent, a position he held for three years before returning to Chattanooga.
Roberts never lost an election. His first political race was in 1971 when he ran against controversial incumbent James "Bookie" Turner for the office of Fire and Police Commissioner. After winning that race, Roberts was re-elected in 1975 with 65% of the vote.
When Roberts was nearing the end of his second term, Governor Lamar Alexander appointed him as the head of the state Safety Department in January 1979. Roberts remained with the state until November 1982, when he resigned to seek election as mayor of Chattanooga.
In 1983, Roberts defeated five other candidates to win the mayor's office, garnering 56% of the vote. He was re-elected three times. During his second term, he was honored as Mayor of the Year by the Tennessee Municipal League.
In August 1989, the U.S. District Court ruled that Chattanooga's commission style government was illegal and mandated that the city develop a council system with councilmen elected from individual districts. In May 1990, the city held an election to install a new mayor and nine councilmen to create the new council system. Roberts became the first mayor of the new system of government.
He oversaw the beginning of the redevelopment of downtown Chattanooga's waterfront. He advocated the revitalization of downtown streets, the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium and worked with preservationists to save the Walnut Street Bridge.
Perhaps the largest issue of his terms of service culminated with a vote in November 1994 to consolidate the city and county school systems. Mayor Roberts had been a strong advocate for the city to merge its school system with that of Hamilton County's. Though voters approved the merger, lawsuits kept the two systems from joining until 1996.
In 1995, Mayor Roberts oversaw the city's purchase of a portion of the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and stated that the site will serve as a "significant industrial recruitment tool." Mayor Roberts announced that he would not seek a fifth term in May 1996, completing his fourth term as mayor in March 1997.
Obituary from Chattanooga Funeral Home, North Chapel:
Gene Davis Bryan Roberts, former Mayor of Chattanooga, passed away on Thursday, January 31, 2013. He was 80 years old.
Gene was born in Chattanooga, the son of the late William Henry Harrison Day Roberts and Pearl Davis Roberts. He was preceded in death by a brother, William H. Roberts and sister, Frances Elizabeth Diana Lytle.
He was a graduate of City High School and the University of Chattanooga. Prior to entering the military, Gene was employed with the Chattanooga Times and returned to the paper after he served in the United States Navy. He was a public servant, serving as Commissioner and Mayor of the City of Chattanooga and Commissioner of Public of Safety for the State of Tennessee. Gene was a charter member of Saint Peter's Episcopal Church.
Gene is survived by his wife of 49 years, Cherrie Morrison Roberts; sons, Robert Brian and wife Debbie Roberts of Alexandria, Virginia and William Mark and wife Cinda Roberts of Murfreesboro; daughter, Amelia Roberts of Chattanooga; grandchildren, Devin, Gianna, Katheryn, Katelyn and Emily; brother, Morris Roberts of Scottsboro, Alabama and a sister, Helene June Marie and husband Billy Thomas of Deer Park, Texas; family friend, Lisa Conner, and several nieces and nephews.
Visitation is set for Saturday from 2-5 p.m. at the North Chapel of Chattanooga Funeral Home on Highway 153. An additional visitation will be held at St. Peter's Episcopal Church Monday from 10 a.m. until 12 noon, with funeral services to follow at 12 noon Monday at the church. Burial will be in Chattanooga National Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Gene's name to Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, 848 Ashland Terrace, Chattanooga, TN 37415, Community Kitchen, P. O. Box 11203, Chattanooga, TN 37401 or your favorite charity.
Here is a tribute to Gene Roberts written by former Chattanooga Times Free Press publisher Tom Griscom, who was a longtime friend:
One street in Chattanooga - from Central Avenue to Market Street - held and shaped the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a young boy. Eleventh Street, where Gene Roberts grew up, both physically and professionally, provided him shelter, an early career as a journalist and a lifetime of service as a public official.
For him, he never forgot his early years, living in a area of dilapidated housing with a fragrant note from the constant burning at the city dump- the smell of onions. It is fitting to carry the name "Onion Bottom" as a reminder of what it was, who populated the area, and the opportunity to give back to those who struggle with life's daily issues.
Whether it was his commitment to the Community Kitchen and recalling the homeless people in Onion Bottom who were near the railroad tracks and warmed by the burning of the dump.
Whether it was his commitment to Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises as a public/private means for revitalized housing in areas where substandard is the standard and never forgetting there are families with children trying to have a decent roof over their heads.
Whether it is was his commitment to public service as a press secretary for Mayor Rudy Olgiati, in the Navy during the Korean War, as an agent with the FBI, fire and police commissioner, Tennessee Commissioner of Safety or four terms as Chattanooga mayor, he understood giving back his time, energy and his wisdom.
Gene Roberts touched many lives.
From his days at City High School, where he was a football player, a Golden Gloves boxing champion and a member of a state champion baseball team. Students at City High School came from across Chattanooga and probably planted a seed in his mind that years later led to his advocating for consolidation of the city and county school systems.
But the call to serve moved him into public service and politics. His longtime friend Gene Hunt recalled, "He had an interest in government and was public spirited."
He reformed the police department, raised the educational standards, but more was ahead. He was the last mayor in the commission style of government, and the first mayor in the new mayor and nine-council member system.
Over his four-term span as mayor, the renaissance of downtown took shape. The Tennessee Aquarium, the restoration of the Walnut Street Bridge, and the early steps of reclaiming the land that had been an army ammunition facility took shape. Years later, Gene Roberts saw a city that went from the dirtiest, to a city that others hope to emulate; from outdated infrastructures to new pedestrian uses for well-worn bridges; from making explosive materials for wartimes to a location for Amazon, Volkswagen and the school system.
Progress from areas, that in many instances time forgot, and turned into usable sites for people to live, work and play.
This is the boy who grew into the man from Onion Bottom, who never left his roots; he only nourished them to bloom in many different ways.
A man who sponsored an awards luncheon at St. Paul's Episcopal Church to recognize people who did great things.
A man who saw the yellow brick road and said, "Let's not just follow it; let's take it."
A man who had a tough upbringing, but with hard work, a core set of values and the belief in what one can do, served the community he loved and encouraged others to do the same.
Years later, his service was recognized when he received the Distinguished Citizen and Lifetime Achievement award from the local chapter of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
Now friends and fellow public officials have chosen to recognize the service, the commitment to community and the spirit that got things done by naming the Public Service Complex in Onion Bottom for Gene Roberts.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who selected Gene Roberts as his safety commissioner when he was governor, shared these words: "His gentle manner and strong leadership played a crucial role in Chattanooga's becoming one of America's most admired cities."
A fitting set of words for a boy from Onion Bottom, who took what life gave him and chose to be more.