Growing up as the only son in a family of seven sisters headed by a single mom — he saw hard work up close. His mom took the bus to work each day at Irving Air Chute Company in Lexington. She taught her children to be strong and steady — and true to faith and duty.
The family lived on Woodland Avenue and young John worked from an early age.
“I was always working. I probably wasn’t a good student, but I spent time mowing lawns, delivering newspapers. I had a Courier-Journal route and a Herald Leader route,” he says. “Some days, I would ride my bicycle or walk down to Irving Air Chute after Mom got off work. I knew she worked hard.”
Roberts picked up the mantle of work easily. It was just the right thing to do, and in order to do the right thing for his personal delivery routes, he learned to make the right investments.
“Looking back on it, I thought of myself as a small business person. I can remember I went down to Western Auto and bought a bike, brand new,” he says. “I had it outfitted with two big saddlebag baskets on the back and a big basket on the front and picked it up there. I had it the way I wanted it.”
His early business endeavors helped him get through high school with some money in his pocket and experience in his head. After he graduated from Henry Clay Senior High in 1964, he went on to attend Eastern Kentucky University for a year. That was when he heard a different call. This one sounded more like revelry.
In June of 1965, Roberts enlisted in the Army and, after basic training at Fort Knox and extended training in New Jersey, was shipped off to Taiwan until the summer of 1968. There, he served as a crypto equipment repairman. The equipment encoded messages on one side and sent them to another crypto machine on the other side where the message would be uncodified.
After his Army service, he decided to follow a dream: he would be a police officer.
Following his strong work ethic and with a new family to support, Roberts worked as a busboy at a Cooper Drive hotel until a position with the department opened up. After about a month, he received a call from the police department. They were ready for him.
“Things worked out,” he says. “Looking back, it was difficult and it was easy. It just seemed like the thing to do.”
While he was serving as a police officer with the Lexington Police Department, Roberts went back to school. Over a period of ten years, mostly taking classes at night, he earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky. Another four and a half years of school rewarded him with his law degree. Roberts was ready to move toward the next phase of his life.
He attributes his work ethic to the legacy his mother gave to him and to the lessons he learned as a child at Immanuel Baptist Church.
“I’ve got a lot of friends at church. I grew up in the Scout troop there. I’m a worker, I’m an ideas person. I have a servant’s heart and I’m also young at heart,” Roberts says without a show of self-aggrandizement.
He is using both of those traits now in a way that most people would think is crazy: He is trying to work himself out of a job.
Since the merger between city and county governments, there are few official duties for a County Judge-Executive. There is only one other merger city-county government in Kentucky and that Louisville-Jefferson County.
Both Larson and Roberts agree the position could be eliminated, cutting the expense of the office from the budget, saving taxpayer money and freeing up the need for a ‘middle man’ in decision-making.
Roberts says there were ten duties of the county judge executive when he came into office. As many as possible have been eliminated but the big change has to be through a constitutional amendment. Otherwise, the seat has to be filled through the election process.
“You have to get the legislation passed by both houses and get the amendment up to the voting folks, and then it has to be passed statewide,” Roberts says. “It’s going to take some time.”
It’s time that Roberts says he is willing to take because he believes it is in the best interest of his people, his town and his county.
Putting himself out of business is still business after all.
Meantime, Roberts does his duty as he sees it. He is a faithful attendee at Bluegrass Area Development District meetings, for example, since the rules call for the Judge-Executive to serve on the board, though Mayor Jim Gray is the official voting member on the board, as chief executive of city-county government. Fayette County and Jefferson County are the only two counties in Kentucky to have city-county government.
Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer from Paris. She wrote this story for the Bluegrass Area Development District.