100-year-old Trooper honored

Sunday’s edition of the Times Union newspaper of Albany featured an article about the oldest, living member retired from the New York State Police. Harley Robinson is 100 years old and now living in Ohio. State Police officials recently visited with Robinson and presented him with items of appreciation. PBA President Daniel M. De Federicis was interviewed for the story in the newspaper, and his comments are placed in bold for emphasis. The Times Union article is shown below, as is a link to the article on the newspaper’s web site.

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, February 20, 2005

The story of the oldest living member of "the long gray line" has taken on a life of its own.

Especially after State Police officials — who were tracking down the graves of deceased troopers to honor them with a commemorative marker — were startled to learn that Harley Robinson, born in 1905, was not dead.

No, he’s alive. He turned 100 on Feb. 8 at home in Dayton, Ohio.

Robinson was a trooper from 1927 to 1931 in the Southern Tier’s Cattaraugus County. He rode a horse in an era when the agency was switching to cars for patrol.

So earlier this month, Col. David Christler, the State Police deputy superintendent, drove to Dayton and presented Robinson with a letter of appreciation from Superintendent Wayne Bennett and a trooper statuette.

Robinson, who is hard of hearing and was not feeling well that day, remained in bed. He spied the colonel through his one good eye and asked: "Do you still ride the horses?"

Robinson’s relatives from Kentucky and Tennessee had come to Ohio for the informal ceremony.

Christler read Bennett’s letter and told Robinson that 5,716 men and women serving in the State Police today are "walking in the footsteps of men like you, who so long ago proudly wore the purple and gray."

Robinson’s relatives fought back tears.

"I don’t think I was ever as proud in my life as I was that day," said Joyce Hale, Robinson’s niece and caretaker, who lives with her uncle.

"It was as uplifting for me as it was for his relatives," Christler said. "It was an emotional visit."

Robinson took a circuitous route to the State Police. Born in Burning Springs, Ky., he dropped out of school, lied about his age and joined the Navy at age 15 just after World War I. He sailed to China and was known as a scrappy boxer in the shipboard "smokers." He was discharged from the Navy in Brooklyn and knocked around New York for a while with a buddy. In 1927, they both decided to join the State Police.

The salary was a meager $900 in those days.

Troopers, separated from their families, lived in military-style barracks. It was a two-year assignment. Turnover was high. Robinson completed two tours of duty and quit the force in 1931.

Highlights of his years with Troop A included riding a horse on patrol, training on a motorcycle and meeting Harry Houdini.

At his bedside, Christler had to shout so Robinson could hear. Seeing the purple and gray perked up the centenarian. "I always loved the uniform," he said, squeezing Christler’s hand.

After leaving the State Police, Robinson moved to Ohio, married and went to work in a steel rolling mill. His wife, Haley, died in 1996. Robinson has been retired since age 52.

"He’s our patriarch," said Jim Dossett, a nephew, who came to the ceremony from his home near Knoxville, Tenn. Though he had no children, he is beloved as "Uncle Harley" to his many nieces and nephews.

The honor for Robinson came about by happenstance. It was a byproduct of tireless research by Kevin Kailbourne, a retired State Police sergeant from Allegany County.

He studied history at the University of Buffalo and has long been an amateur historian. In retirement, he has made it his goal to find where everyone of the thousands of former state troopers are buried and to place a round metal marker at the grave.

It reads, "New York State Police. Proudly Served." There is an image of a trooper with a Stetson carved on the front. The marker also holds two small New York state flags.

"Everybody likes to be remembered for their dedication and hard work," Kailbourne said from his winter home in Ocala, Fla. "I do it so the troopers won’t be forgotten."

So far, Kailbourne has located and placed more than 500 markers at the graves of troopers across New York and beyond. He has a computer database of more than 2,200 names in all, but knows there are many more out there. He combs back issues of Trooper magazine and newsletters of the Association of Former State Troopers for leads.

"I started out small, but it just keeps growing," Kailbourne said. "You wouldn’t believe how I end up finding some of these graves. I end up talking to a lot of old-timers and hearing a lot of stories."

The New York State Police was founded in 1917. There are more than 10,000 former troopers, but no firm count and no reliable clearinghouse for old personnel records, Christler said.

"Thanks to Kevin, troopers who served so well may be gone, but they’re no longer forgotten," said Dan De Federicis, president of the Police Benevolent Association of the New York State Troopers. The union represents 6,000 active and retired members.

De Federicis noted that Kailbourne’s commemorative project reinforces the State Police motto: "Once a trooper, always a trooper."

Kailbourne volunteers his time and receives donations for the markers from the union and local chapters of the retirees’ group.

"Once I’ve planted the markers and the flags, I like that you can drive by a cemetery and see right away where the troopers are buried," Kailbourne said.

He recently placed markers at graves throughout Sullivan, Greene and Columbia counties. This spring, markers will be placed in Saratoga County. Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady counties will follow.

Kailbourne hopes to finish in the next three years or so.

A couple of summers ago, while driving through the Capital Region en route to a troopers’ picnic in Maine, Kailbourne planted a marker in the Woodlawn Cemetery on Route 443 in Berne.

It was for Harold C. Mattice, the first trooper killed in the line of duty in the history of the State Police. Mattice died on April 28, 1923, after being shot in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun.

"It felt good to put the marker there," Kailbourne said. "You wouldn’t have ever known he was a trooper. Now, when people see his grave, they’ll know."

Click here to view the article in the Times Union newspaper