‘Hey hey!’: Legendary Rock Hill sports pioneer Robert Hope dies at 84

On Father’s Day, the second father of thousands of kids who played sports in Rock Hill for decades gave his final cheer. The words “Hey, hey!” that rang out for all players of all sports, the high fives from the first row of the bleachers, ended.

Iconic sports figure Robert Hope, the man who cheered for every kid from every station in life, who ran the YMCA for three decades when just about the only staff was him, died at his summer place in Garden City. He was 84.

His wife, Margaret, was asked just hours after Hope died if her husband ever didn’t want to go to a ball game to cheer on somebody else’s kids: Thousands of games over decades, covering tens of thousands of players who heard the bellowing from the front row: “Hey, hey!”

Margaret was asked if her husband ever didn’t want to stick up his hand for one of hundreds of thousands of high fives from the players: Players black and white, rich and poor, stars and bench warmers.

“Oh, heavens no, he wanted to go to every single game,” Margaret Hope said. “He believed in those kids. He loved those kids.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Hope was a man who was extraordinary in his devotion to young people, said Frank “Moe” Bell, who worked for Hope at the YMCA starting in his teens four decades ago and still holds the executive director job.

“There are many people who like kids, but Robert Hope loved kids,” Bell said. “His enthusiasm has spread for years throughout Rock Hill and York County. Robert Hope was as dedicated a man as we have ever had in this community to seeing that young people had opportunities. He wanted to cheer for them all. A man like him comes through once in a lifetime.”

Maybe that is because Robert Hope knew what it was like to play without a father cheering him. His own father died when he was a young boy. Hope then sold eggs door-to-door on a bicycle from the family chicken farm, and went on to attend Clemson. After graduating in 1953, Hope was immediately sent to Korea, where in just days he was given command of a company whose commanding officer was wounded. Hope was ordered to take back a mound of dirt called Pork Chop Hill. He was wounded in the leg, hand and, by his own admission, his big rear end. Still, he dragged wounded soldiers to help. Dozens died and hundreds were wounded, and Hope left only when he was dragged out for medical treatment.

Hope has a Silver Star for gallantry in action but never told anybody. He only would shout out “Hey, hey, hey!’ to kids playing in games and pray that no kid would ever have to do and see what he had to do and see in a war.

Hope almost never missed games at Rock Hill High (he was honored several times by the school for his devotion) but he cheered plenty for Northwestern and South Pointe and other local teams, too.

“He loved the games, but it was the players he loved the most,” said Billy Dunlap, one of Hope’s children. “He just loved it when those players did great. The thing that people remember the most, that they saw at all those games, was how loyal he was to the teams and the players.”

Hope, at the YMCA until his 1990s retirement, worked morning to night, driving buses, vans, coaching, whatever needed to be done. He also ran Camp Cherokee, the Y-owned summer camp, for years. He spent uncountable days, weekends, weeks there making sure children had a chance to experience activities, water sports and more. This summer’s Camp Cherokee season is dedicated to Robert Hope.

And for years after retirement, Hope was executive director of the Shepherd’s Center, a nonprofit learning and activity center for seniors. He was elected to the York County Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Through all the work and volunteering, the helping, Hope was a huge Clemson fan, a Winthrop fan and a fan of every player of every sport. He went to games all over the state. Even when he needed a walker or wheelchair near the end of his life, there was Robert Hope, high-fiving the players as they ran by.

Many Rock Hill High teams over the years bumped knuckles with Hope after being introduced before games. This guy was not a fan. He was part of the team.

The players would beam at the attention from this man. Hope would yell to them, all of them, boys and girls, the great ones and not so great, as they rounded bases or hit volleyballs, the kids beaming from the attention and that foghorn voice from that gray-haired man who never ceased: “Hey, hey!”