He likes to tell a story about the Christmas cards he received for years from a man Robey not only arrested for being drunk and disorderly, but whacked upside the head with a nightstick. Evidently, the fellow was grateful for an event that he felt helped him turn his life around.

"When you're a police officer for decades, you get to know the county," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who succeeded Robey in the office in 2006. Ulman acknowledges he's never emulated Robey's taciturn personal style but did ask for his perspective on governing.

Robey's approach, Ulman said, was to "hire great department heads, then let them do their jobs."

Howard's growth had slowed a bit by the time Robey took office, but only compared to the wild pace of decades earlier, as the advent of Columbia contributed to the population's tripling to 187,000 between 1970 and 1990. Still, Robey said his administration allocated money for nine new schools in eight years.


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County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who was a school activist when Robey was elected as county executive, remembered the fight over construction of a 12th high school, as Robey did not include the money in his capital budget in 2001.

"We organized a bunch of parents and kids" to pack the executive's budget hearing, said Watson, a Democrat who is running for executive this year against Republican State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman. There must have been 150 people, she said, including about 50 elementary school kids holding balloons marked with the number 12.

She gives Robey credit for handling the crowd gracefully, especially the children, being willing to reconsider his decision and eventually coming up with the money to build what became Marriotts Ridge High School.

Watson, who later served a term on the Board of Education, was elected to the County Council in 2006, and calls Robey a "mentor and a role model for me in my public life…His hallmark in the county is public service with a very humble approach."

Her opponent in the general election, who served on the council under executive Robey and now alongside him in the Senate, agreed.

"He's just very reasonable," said Kittleman. "He doesn't seem to get upset when people disagree with him."

The quiet man

By his Senate colleagues' account, Robey is the quiet man who seldom speaks on the Senate floor, but when he does, he gets people's attention. A member of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee, he's been particularly outspoken on matters of public safety and care for disabled people.

Several of his colleagues recalled his remarks on a bill in 2009 to expand a pilot program from Montgomery County to the entire state, allowing speed cameras in school zones. Opponents called it an overbearing government intrusion, but Robey insisted it was about safety.

Robey told about an experience he had when he was a police sergeant, decades before, handling an accident on Montgomery Road in which a little boy was killed.

"I still remember the funeral director asking me to help him load that youngster into a rubber bag," Robey said in his office, his blue eyes welling up. "You never forget things like that."

Ulman considered Robey's commitment to public safety when it came time to name the new police training center in Marriottsville. At the dedication ceremony in late October, 2007, when they unveiled the sign for the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center, Ulman said he thought Robey was "a little uncomfortable. Maybe he thought it was a little too much."

Yes, that's right, Robey said. While he appreciated the honor, he said he was also thinking that many people were involved in establishing the new training complex for police and firefighters. When Ulman told him he was going to name the center for him, "my first thought was: 'Am I dead?' "

The quiet man plans to shift now into a quieter phase of life, hoping to travel more and spend more time in a cabin he and his wife had built in West Virginia.

"We're going to sit in the screened-in porch and watch the deer come by, and the wild turkeys," he said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com