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Dalton Roberts

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Services for Dalton Roberts will be announced later by Turner Funeral Home.

City and county mayors have come and gone in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. So have council members and commissioners.

But not one has — or probably will again — have the immense positive impact on our region that Dalton Roberts had in his 82 years here before he died Wednesday morning.

Roberts was the Hamilton County executive (these days we call the job county mayor) for 16 years.

And before, during and after those years of public service, he was musician, writer, philosopher, popular after-dinner and lunch speaker, self-described "hell-raiser" and consummate storyteller who could inspire us, lecture us, make us laugh, make us cry and summon the best of us no matter what the circumstances of the day.

What Roberts completely understood is something lost on most of today's politicians: Respect is the most powerful of all persuaders. Consider this excerpt from his May 1, 2012, column (and later autobiography) in the Times Free Press headlined, "The year I found honor."

"I was surprised to see Mr. Taylor [Kirkman Technical High School principal Robert A. Taylor] with both feet up on his desk, and he said, 'I am reading your cumulative record.' I shivered. A cumulative record is a year-by-year account of your years in school. I thought, 'Oh, my God! He will surely throw me out of Kirkman.' I guarantee you my cumulative record was not pretty. [Roberts by this time had already been expelled from Tyner High in his 10th-grade year.]

"I sat and squirmed while he kept reading. Finally, he looked up over the cumulative record and said, 'I see that you play guitar. Would you play for a school dance or a school assembly program?' I told him I would.

"He asked, 'Has everybody treated you good here at Kirkman?' And I told him they had. He said, 'Well, you know where my office is now, and if anyone doesn't treat you well, you come see me and we will do something about it. OK?'

"He arose and shook my hand and walked me to the door, and I stood outside his office stunned. I knew in my heart that I would never let Mr. Taylor down. I didn't. "

At the end of Roberts' column, he wrote that he never forgot what he learned at Kirkman — "the power of respecting someone and making them feel important; the value of finding their talents and using them."

Roberts' story is one of lifelong learning — and not just just from schools. After he graduated from high school, he earned a bachelor's degree from Trevecca College and a master's degree in special education from the University of Tennessee. He worked in several public service jobs until he was elected Hamilton County's first county executive in 1978 and was re-elected three times — the last one unopposed.

By the time he retired in 1994, Roberts had helped lay a solid foundation for future growth with four industrial parks, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Trade Center and the early steps toward acquiring the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant, now Enterprise South and site of the Volkswagen assembly plant.

Roberts successfully introduced a countywide ambulance service, but couldn't persuade other elected officials that government, police and sewer services and especially metro government would be more efficient and less costly if operated countywide rather than by individual municipalities.

The forward-thinker also supported other ideas that, at the time, were dismissed as unwanted or impractical. Now we understand and celebrate some of those things — like the Tennessee Aquarium and the Tennessee Riverpark.

Roberts was never afraid to be a dreamer, and he didn't like to think of himself as a politician. What he was most of all was a do-er.

As an editorial noted when he retired: "He is not in politics to get something, or to be somebody. He is in it to do something."

We've already missed him in government here for two decades.

Now we will miss him more.

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