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Police chief who led Rock Hill through civil rights era dies

Former Rock Hill Police Chief John Hunsucker Jr., who helped guide the city through the difficult period of civil rights and developed a reputation as a peacemaker, has died after a stroke following a battle with a lung disease. He was 83.

Hunsucker, who died Wednesday, was chief from 1966 to 1979, after working his way up from patrol, said one of his sons, Mike Hunsucker.

After his retirement, Hunsucker served in the 1980s as York County's interim sheriff after an appointment from Gov. Dick Riley.

"His whole life was dedicated to protecting and serving people," Mike Hunsucker said. "He was always working. He loved being a police officer."

Hunsucker was known to the community as a fair man who earned the respect of the officers who worked for him, said Detective Jerry Waldrop, one of just two officers remaining at the Rock Hill Police Department who started careers under Hunsucker.

Hunsucker hired officers, black or white, based on ability.

"John Hunsucker was a great man and a great chief," Waldrop said. "He was extremely fair. He was a man who knew how to listen and treat all people the same way."

During the turbulent late-1950s and 1960s, Hunsucker was often the police officer assigned to handle civil rights demonstrations. He had to make arrests under what were, at the time, state and local laws that forced segregation.

Yet Hunsucker often, at public demonstrations, was the wall that separated angry anti-civil rights protesters from peaceful demonstrators, said his son.

"My father later became friends with many of those people demonstrating, and he stood with them many times protecting their safety," Mike Hunsucker said. "He understood their position."

Hunsucker was the police officer who stepped in after Freedom Riders were beaten at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus station in 1961.

One of those beaten was John Lewis, who is now a congressman from Georgia.

David "Scoop" Williamson was one of the "Friendship Nine" black protesters in 1961, who chose 30 days in jail rather than being bailed out after being arrested for sitting at segregated McCrory's lunch counter on Rock Hill's Main Street.

The system was the problem, Williamson said, not police officers such as Hunsucker who were only enforcing unjust laws.

The protesters knew they would be arrested, and Hunsucker, a veteran officer by 1961, had been ordered by city officials to arrest and even re-arrest if it would keep the peace in the city.

"That was a long time ago and times were different," Williamson said. "No police officer was the problem then, and I know Mr. Hunsucker served this city for a long time and served all people - black and white - for a long time.

"I, for one, appreciate his service to all of us."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hunsucker was a mentor and role model for young police officers learning how to handle the difficult job, York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said.

"John Hunsucker was a prince of a guy, a gentleman and a peacemaker during some difficult days," Bryant said. "This community owes him a great debt of gratitude for his years of service."

Hunsucker started with the Rock Hill department in 1948 and was one of its first motorcycle officers.

"He took that job - they rode summer and winter, hot and ice cold, because it paid an extra $8 a month," Mike Hunsucker said.

Former Mayor Betty Jo Rhea, a Rock Hill native who knew Hunsucker for decades, said "girls used to swoon" over Hunsucker on that motorcycle during his early years on the force.

Then - as Hunsucker moved up through the ranks and was chosen to handle so many tough assignments, including chief for 13 years - Hunsucker rose to the challenge.

The city's people from all backgrounds benefited from his dedication, personality and demeanor, Rhea said.

"He did such a good job, and was a fine man," Rhea said. "He served this city well."

Colie L. Fox, 88, who served alongside Hunsucker for 24 years in the department, described Hunsucker as a fine policeman and chief who could keep a cool head during difficult situations.

Hunsucker rose through the ranks and was an officer who so believed in the letter of the law that he once gave his own son a parking ticket.

"At supper that night," Mike Hunsucker said, "he asked me if I wanted to go down to the station and pay the fine - it was a dollar - or give it to him to take to work to save me the trip.

"That was my father - a policeman."

Funeral services will be private.