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1983-1997 Gene Roberts

Gene Roberts 1983(August 17, 1932 - January 31, 2013)

Born in Chattanooga, Gene Roberts graduated from Chattanooga High School, served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, and returned to Chattanooga as a copy editor and reporter for the Chattanooga News Free Press.  In 1958, Roberts graduated from the University of Chattanooga and rejoined the News Free Press as a reporter.  Roberts left the newspaper in 1960 to become the Public Information Officer for Mayor P.R. Olgiati.  Following Olgiati’s term as mayor, Roberts joined the FBI as a special agent, a position he held for three years before returning to Chattanooga. 

Roberts first political race came in 1971 when he ran against incumbent James “Bookie” Turner for the seat of Fire and Police Commissioner.  Roberts won the race and four years later was re-elected with 65% of the vote.  Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander appointed Roberts as the head of the Tennessee Safety Department in January 1979.  Roberts remained with the state until November 1982, when he resigned to seek election as mayor of Chattanooga.

With Mayor Pat Rose retiring at the end of his term in March 1983, Roberts joined a field of five others seeking election to the mayor’s office.  On election- day, Roberts won with an overwhelming 56% of the vote.  Mayor Roberts served four terms as mayor until his retirement in 1997.  In June 1989, Mayor Roberts was honored as Mayor of the Year by the Tennessee Municipal League.

In August 1989, the U.S. District Court ruled that Chattanooga’s commission style government was illegal and mandated that the city develop a council system with councilmen elected from individual districts.  In May 1990, the city held an election to install a new mayor and nine councilmen to create the new council system.  Mayor Roberts thus became the first mayor of the new system of government. 

Mayor Roberts oversaw the beginning of the redevelopment of downtown Chattanooga’s waterfront.  He advocated the revitalization of downtown streets, the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium and worked with preservationists to save the Walnut Street Bridge. 

Perhaps the largest issue of his terms of service culminated with a vote in November 1994 to consolidate the city and county school systems.  Mayor Roberts had been a strong advocate for the city to merge its school system with that of Hamilton County’s. Though voters approved the merger, lawsuits kept the two systems from joining until 1996. 

In 1995, Mayor Roberts oversaw the city’s purchase of a portion of the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and stated that the site will serve as a “significant industrial recruitment tool.”  Mayor Roberts announced that he would not seek a fifth term in May 1996.

On January 29, 2013 Mayor Ron Littlefield and other city officials dedicated the Gene Roberts Public Service Complex on East 11th Street; the old Onion Bottom section of Chattanooga where Mayor Roberts grew up.

Photo by Phillip Stevens and Matt Lea