Andrew Dys

September 26, 2012

Grady Harper, longtime York policeman, courthouse constable, dies at 76

Grady Harper, called an "institution" in the York Police Department and around the community, has died.

For more than 30 years in York, especially at night, the prowl car with the old gumball-type light on top would creep down the city streets in all neighborhoods.

Behind the wheel, a widebody. Out of the open driver-side window, a left arm as thick and strong as the trunk of a magnolia tree.

At the end of the arm, a hand that could bend steel.

The driver had grown up on a turkey farm – “dirt-poor” in the words of his daughter – then worked in a factory before starting a career “po-licing.”

That’s the way it’s pronounced – two syllables, long O – “po-licing.”

“Get on home to your momma before I have to take you myself!” the words would fly out the window, and kids would scramble to get home because nobody wanted Grady Harper to show up at the house.

Back when policemen where known by name, everybody in York knew Grady Harper. He was the “po-lice.”

“An institution,” said Gene Robbins, a retired York police officer. “Grady Harper was who people knew as the police. He knew everybody. They knew him. He had an intelligence, a way with people, like no one else.”

After Harper retired in 1998 after more than 32 years with the York Police Department, he still wore a badge for more than a decade as a constable at the Moss Justice Center courthouse until his health forced him to give up the job he loved.

On Tuesday, Harper died at home outside York. He was 76.

Those who worked with him, and around him, say there will never be another one like Grady Harper.

Wilson Barnette, another courthouse constable who retired from York police after more than 30 years, worked alongside Harper for decades.

“Grady Harper cared about people; he cared about York; he cared about the department,” Barnette said. “Everybody knew Grady – and I mean everybody – because he took time for all the people.”

Sarah Robbins, recently retired from the York Police Department, learned under Harper.

“Grady was a legend out there among the public,” Robbins said. “He knew how to treat people, and they respected him for it.”

One of Harper’s daughters, Terry Harper Hardin, recalled that in school she was known as “Crimestopper Harper” because of her father.

“Daddy was a police officer, but we always thought of him as a peace officer, really, because he always thought his job was protecting the safety of people,” Hardin said. “People loved him, because he cared about them. He was so smart.

“He had that common sense, that touch for people.”

Grady Harper grew up south of York in what was called the Delphia community. He had to leave school after the eighth grade to work to help support his family. He worked, two and three jobs at a time, including after he started as a police officer in 1968.

Harper would work a full shift at the police department, then work at the old Creamery store on Liberty Street, cutting meat and selling groceries. He would cut wood, a job he kept at until well into his 70s.

Somehow Harper found time to take care of a family, volunteer with the fire department and rescue squad, and coach Little League.

“My father worked so hard his whole life, and he gave to people,” said Stacie Harper Green, another daughter.

Harper’s physical strength – “strong like an ox,” in Barnette’s words – and gentle manner were Harper trademarks.

“A fine officer and a fine man” is how former York Police Chief Charlie Hudson described Harper.

Harper began as a patrol officer in York, rising to lieutenant before retiring.

In the old days of police work, officers had to be part social worker, part mediator and part tough guy with badge and gun. Harper was that officer in York for three decades – breaking up fights, taking drunks home to sober up so jobs were not lost, and putting violent criminals in jail.

When former police officer Gene Robbins was a kid in York, maybe 12 or 13 years old, he snuck out and walked downtown to the old Smitty’s hamburger stand.

It was around midnight, and a police offered boomed: “Boy, you know better than to be out here, now git home!”

It was Harper, and Robbins ran home and he never snuck out again.

At the courthouse while working as a constable, Harper was responsible for courtroom security. He was as much at ease with a judge as with a custodian.

And nobody who ever thought about creating a ruckus in a courtroom ever needed more than one tug from a giant Grady Harper hand to stop the nonsense.

Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford, who knew Harper for more than four decades, said he was “a nice man who always had time for people here at the courthouse.”

The funeral is 2 p.m. Friday at Philadelphia United Methodist Church in York.

Some people, when buried, are clothed in a Sunday suit. Not Grady Harper. He will be buried in his police uniform, with his badge.

Because, his family said Wednesday, Grady Harper was always so proud to say he was a “po-lice.”

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