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Robey's life in public service honored at Howard Community College

Former State Senator James Robey, with his wife of more than 50 years, Janet Robey. 2012 / file Photo by Doug Kapustin
Former State Senator James Robey, with his wife of more than 50 years, Janet Robey. 2012 / file Photo by Doug Kapustin (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun)

The accolades for James N. Robey, former Howard County police chief, county executive and state senator, played out like the popular 1950s TV show "This is Your Life" as he was honored by Howard Community College last week with its version of a lifetime achievement award.

The three distinct segments of Robey's public service career were addressed during a ceremony by speakers who included county police Chief Gary Gardner, County Executive Allan Kittleman and state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer.

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"You sit there and hear these things they allege you've done, but that was my role in public service," Robey said afterward, attempting to minimize his accomplishments with what those who know him say is his typical humility.

"I enjoyed almost every minute of my 48 years as a public servant, from June 1966 when I joined the police force until I retired from the Senate," he said.

The Sen. James Clark Jr. Medal was presented to the longtime public servant twice on Oct. 12 — first at a private luncheon and then immediately afterward at a college-wide event and cake-cutting ceremony marking the 45th anniversary date of the college's opening in Columbia in 1970.

Robey capped a 32-year career with the Howard County Police Department by serving as police chief for his last seven years before retiring in 1998 and winning election to the office of Howard County executive. After serving two terms, the Elkridge Democrat became a state senator in 2007, retiring in January.

His life could have turned out much differently, he said: His family had expected him to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps as a factory worker at the textile mill in Daniels, the small Howard County town where he grew up.

"I tried it, but it wasn't in my DNA," said Robey, 74. "I chose instead to do what I enjoyed doing the most."

Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington explained the life values the college looks for in choosing a recipient for the medal, which was established in 2006, shortly after Clark died at age 87.

"Jim Clark embodied the citizen statesman, and his life was dedicated to serving others and making the county and state a better place for everyone," Hetherington said in a separate interview about Clark's dedication to land preservation, the environment and civil discourse.

"The board of trustees awards this medal to someone who gives their all to make the community better and is committed to public service, not only to the college.

"Jim Robey is so unassuming and prefers to give credit to others, but he exemplifies the best you can find in a person."

Previous recipients of the medal include: Victor Broccolino, retired president of Howard County General Hospital; Edward Cochran, a former Howard County executive; Sydney Cousin, a former Howard County school superintendent; and Padraic Kennedy, a former president of the Columbia Association.

The medal, which is part of a large, framed plaque that also contains a portrait, has not been awarded annually; in 2011, the board could not settle on a name, said Edmund "Skip" Coale, chairman of the seven-member board that chooses the recipient.

"The Clark Medal is one of the more prestigious awards given by the college, and we are most judicious in maintaining its esteem," Coale said, calling Clark "a good role model for civic involvement."

Robey's nomination "was unanimously applauded and endorsed," he said. "When he was county executive and when he was in Annapolis, he was extremely supportive of HCC and instrumental in helping the college fulfill its potential. I would put our classes today up against many at four-year colleges."

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Robey said he remembered when the college opened after he had joined the police force and had opted against furthering his education. He later changed his mind and got a two-year degree at the former Catonsville Community College and also earned a master's degree at Hood College.

"HCC started out as this tiny building in the middle of a big field," he recalled. "I would have gone there if it had been open when I decided to go.

"It has seen such tremendous growth in 45 years, not just in the number of buildings, but in the quality of education, with its training of paramedics and a nursing program that's one of the best in the state."

Gardner spoke at the award ceremony about Robey's tenure with the Police Department, which comprised the bulk of Gardner's public service career.

"Jim wasted no time getting to work to build community trust, and he established the Police Department's community-oriented policy philosophy in his first year," he said. "We are focused on many of those very same principles today in order to improve public trust and increase transparency."

Gardner, a 31-year veteran of the county department, also praised Robey for establishing the Citizens Advisory Council in 1991, opening the first neighborhood satellite office in 1993 and creating the Volunteer Police Auxiliary Program in 1995.

Robey said he's received many awards during his career, and all of them are meaningful.

"It's great to see the effects of the things you were able to accomplish," he said.

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