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Bob Reid is a Middletown treasure: Editorial

Posted 3/6/19

The simplest but most complimentary thing that might be said about Robert G. Reid is that Middletown is a much better place because he chose to live his life here.

He has touched so many people in …

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Bob Reid is a Middletown treasure: Editorial

Posted

The simplest but most complimentary thing that might be said about Robert G. Reid is that Middletown is a much better place because he chose to live his life here.

He has touched so many people in this community in ways both small and large going back for almost six decades, as a teacher, council member, and as the longtime mayor of Middletown.

How do you quantify what he has done? How can we further praise a man who has a school named after him, who has earned the respect of everyone from presidents and senators down to the men and women you pass on the street?

There will never be another Bob Reid. But we sure are glad for the original.

With his decision not to run for re-election to the Middletown Borough Council at age 86, his career as an elected official looks to be over.

It was his time as an elected official — mayor of Middletown, primarily — that people outside the area likely remember him for. He made history in November 1977 when he was elected mayor of Middletown, the first African-American elected to that post in Pennsylvania. He took the post after serving on borough council since 1968.

Reid said race was never an issue for him, however.

“I’ve said this many times — don’t look at me as the black mayor. Look at me as the mayor who the people thought was qualified to do the job as mayor of the borough of Middletown. Not as a black mayor, but as a mayor,” he told the Press & Journal.

He was mayor of Middletown on March 28, 1979, when the accident at Three Mile Island occurred, and he became for a time America’s mayor, putting a local face on the people who lived in this slice of central Pennsylvania. His actions led him to travel the world, to meet our nation’s leaders and newsmakers, to testify before a U.S. Senate committee looking into what happened at TMI.

As residents streamed out of the area in March and early April of 1979, fleeing the potential dangers at TMI, he gave the famous (or infamous) order to Middletown police — “Looters will be shot.”

Suffice it to say there was no looting. Despite the shock that some outside this area might have felt by such a command, it sure gave peace of mind to the residents here.

“What about due process?” Reid recalls reporters from around the country asking of him.

“Whoa — let’s talk about due process for the victim,” Reid told Press & Journal reporter Dan Miller in an extensive two-part interview. “No one has the right to come to this town and take from people things that they worked for all their life, because you’re too damn lazy to get a job. You’re gonna come in and take? I said, ‘You ain’t coming to my town and doing that. Your ass will be shot.’”

Reid expanded on what he said back in 1979 in the interview with Miller, and it bears being repeated here, because it is vintage Bob Reid:

In one anecdote that sums up his defiant attitude during the crisis, Reid tells of being confronted by a Chicago Tribune reporter, one of the throngs who had descended here.

“‘Mayor did you say that?’” Reid said the woman asked, not believing that this folksy but deliberate man could have uttered such infamous words.

“I said, ‘Lemme see — looters will be shot. No, that’s not what I said.’ She said, ‘I didn’t think so.’”

“I said, ‘You know what I said?’ She said ‘what?’ I said, ‘Shoot the damn looters, and save one for me so I can shoot his ass. Now that’s what I said.’”

Reid stepped to the forefront again and channeled our community’s pride and support for its armed forces during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Many may remember a massive community rally at Memorial Field that began with Reid chanting “USA” over and over and over. Patriotism and pride filled every heart that day thanks to Reid, and the community showcased it with gold ribbons wrapped around practically every lamppost, tree and porch in our town.

He did not run for mayor again in 1993. After that first six-year hiatus from elected office, Reid again ran for Middletown mayor and was elected in 2000. He held the position until choosing not to run again in 2013, stepping down until deciding to run for council in 2015.

The actions he took as mayor during all those years helped shape what we have in Middletown today, from trees along a completely redone Ann Street to the community pool to the continued presence of an Amtrak station to hundreds of other projects big and small. He was — and is — passionate about Middletown.

But while outsiders might remember Reid for TMI, it’s just as likely that local residents will remember him as a teacher. In 1960, he became just one of two African-Americans teaching in the Middletown district. Again, as when he was growing up here, he simply never felt the racial tensions so prevalent across the country in that era.

He had his own style of teaching, proudly veering from the curriculum to teach his students what he considered critical practical knowledge about the community. Reid said he wrote his own textbook about local government. He also came up with a board game to try and make learning about local government fun. On Friday afternoon, when his students were done with everything for the week, Reid played music in his classroom — mostly jazz, but also some classical and even opera. It was the first time many of the youngsters had ever heard such music.

And there is the discipline. A large wooden paddle hangs on the wall of his home as a memento made for Reid by students in the industrial arts “shop” class.

“When I retired, it came with me,” Reid said of the paddle. “I used it, too. Can’t do that now. I paddled a lot. I see kids now, I mean they’re 50 years old — ‘Yeah, Mr. Reid, you paddled me.’ I had a lot of kids come up and tell me, ‘I had it coming … you straightened me out.’”

In 1994, just one year after his retirement from the school district after 33 years, the new elementary school near Middletown Area High School was named Robert G. Reid Elementary School. A more fitting tribute we can hardly imagine.

What more can we say than thank you for everything you have done for this community? As we said before, there will never be another Bob Reid. But we hope that there is a young person out there, who read about Reid’s life, who will be inspired by what he did and aspire to be the type of community leader he was.

One person can make a difference. Bob Reid sure did.