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Remembering former York Mayor Charlie Robertson, whose career was derailed for role in 1969 riots

Written by Staff Report/The York Daily Record | Aug 25, 2017 7:07 AM
charlie_robertson1.jpg

Former York Mayor Charlie Robertson is pictured in June 2002. (Photo: File, York Daily Record)

He was a hero to some, a villain to others

(York) -- Charlie Robertson, the York mayor who was charged with murder in 2001 in a case dating back 30 years to his time as a police officer, died Thursday. He was 83. 

Robertson's brother, Jim, said he died at Manor Care South in the early morning hours as a result of cancer, which had been diagnosed about two years ago.  

Robertson lived his entire life in the house he grew up in on West Princess Street. He served in the Army in Texas and at the Army War College in Carlisle, according to his obituary, and he worked as a York City Police officer for 29 years. Robertson, in addition to serving as mayor of York, spent 10 years on the city school board. 

Charles Robertson was a community personality who became a figure of controversy when he was arrested in 2001. Wochit/York Daily Record

 

His involvement in local sports included 25 years of coaching Legion baseball and dozens of years as a basketball and football referee at the high school and college levels, his obituary states. Robertson also sponsored youth sports teams in the city. 

Robertson's genial demeanor and community involvement made him popular with many York residents. His actions as a police officer, as detailed in court testimony during the trial stemming from the 1969 race riots, made him a villain to others.  

After a trial in 2002, Robertson was acquitted of murder in the 1969 death of Lillie Belle Allen. Two men were found guilty and seven pleaded guilty in the death. The jury concluded that Robertson's actions did not rise to the level of murder.

Robertson's son, Chhayrong Chhum, 47, said he was with his father late into Wednesday night at Manor Care South. His father had been transferred there earlier this month from Memorial Hospital after his condition worsened.

In 2001, then York mayor Charlie Robertson was charged in the 1969 murder of Lillie Belle Allen. In the following footage, Robertson proclaims his innocence at a press conference after the charges were filed. Robertson was eventually acquitted of the murder charge. Footage courtesy Associated Press. Associated Press/York Daily Record

Read below for memories of Robertson and reactions to his death:

'He was the only fan I had'

Chhayrong Chhum came to the United States from Cambodia as an orphan when he was around 11. He attended Edgar Fahs Middle School and remembers Robertson directed traffic there when Robertson was a police officer.

Robertson found out Chhum had no  parents and would later go on to attend his wrestling matches. 

"He was the only fan I had," Chhum said Thursday. "He would show up and support me." 

Chhum remembers Robertson asked him to be his son around the time he was in middle school. He had a room downstairs in Robertson's West Princess Street home. Chhum later got married, moved out and had two children of his own. 

Chhum and Robertson's brother, Jim, recalled Robertson as a baseball coach who kept kids out of trouble.  

"He has done a lot of good things for the community and the city," Chhum said. 

On Robertson, the mayor

Eric Menzer, who was the city's director of economic and community development from 1994 to 2001 and now is the president of the York Revolution, said, "Whatever you say about Charlie, he was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve for his city."

"I didn't know him before I came to work for the city, but it was immediately obvious that he bled for his city."

"He had a way of cutting through the bureaucracy, (saying) 'I don't want to hear your excuses. Get it done. (To Charlie) a dirty alley was a dirty alley and a weed was a weed." 

Menzer said Robertson "couldn't walk down the street with him without someone stopping him. He kept a spiral notebook in his shirt pocket and he had a golf pencil." 

Robertson would take the person's complaint and then send a note to whatever city department he thought could take care of the problem.

Menzer said that Charlie's methods of running the city would "get him in hot water sometimes, but he was a damn-the-torpedoes guy. For better or worse, whatever you knew about Charlie, whatever you believed, he loved his city and did not appreciate anyone who got in the way of that." 

Eugene DePasquale: The Pennsylvania Auditor General and former York state representative said, "There were not too many people who loved the city more than Charlie Robertson. The way he went about it (getting things done for the city and residents) sometimes ruffled some feathers."

DePasquale said that Robertson paid attention to the things that irked the city residents, like making sure the garbage was picked up and the streets were plowed. 

"And, he cared about that stuff. He took pride in that." 

Also, DePasquale said, Robertson "had a passion for baseball."

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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