The Virus Killed an Officer. His Town Lined the Streets to Mourn Him.



May 14, 2020

The family of Officer Charles Roberts during a memorial service on Thursday outside the municipal building in Glen Ridge, N.J.Credit...


GLEN RIDGE, N.J. — For three weeks, a small town in northern New Jersey kept vigil over Officer Charles Roberts.

Since he had collapsed at home and had been revived by fellow officers, they had prayed for him and placed signs on their doors, windows and lawns that read “#ROBSTRONG.”

They pooled money to buy food for the nurses and doctors who cared for him and in the evenings banged pots and pans to show their support.

But Officer Roberts never made it back home to his wife and three children.

On Thursday, three days after he died at a Manhattan hospital from complications of the coronavirus, the people of Glen Ridge, which is about 12 miles west of New York City, paid him one last honor.

There was no central gathering spot — the state’s lockdown orders prevented it.

Instead, by the hundreds they filed out of their homes and stood on their porches, their front yards and the sidewalks.

They placed their hands over their hearts as the hearse carrying his body made its way to the cemetery. Many wore blue and orange, the colors of the New York Mets, Mr. Roberts’s favorite baseball team, and saluted as the hearse drove by, escorted by dozens of police cars and motorcycles from nearby towns and cities.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in this town or anything close to it,” said Stuart Patrick, the mayor of Glen Ridge.

It was an overwhelming display of solidarity with a family many Glen Ridge residents knew personally. Officer Roberts’s wife, Alice Baker-Roberts, has taught children in the town’s school district since 1997, and Mr. Roberts, 45, was an officer in the schools’ drug education program who mentored students and who seemed to know just about every resident by name.

“He’s just truly the poster image of what a Norman Rockwell police officer looks like,” said Joseph Uliano, a fellow officer in the Glen Ridge Police Department, referring to the famous painting of a police officer chatting with a small child at a soda shop.

“If there was a 2020 version of that poster it would be Rob sitting at that counter with that little boy,” he said.

Mr. Roberts had been self-quarantining on the third floor of his home since mid-April after he had lost his sense of taste and his appetite.

But his symptoms were mild, and his family was confident that Mr. Roberts, a marathon runner with a strong build who had coached sports for years, would recover.

Then he got a call from a local health official confirming that he had the coronavirus. Within moments, he collapsed, and officers from his department rushed to the house, where they revived him with a defibrillator.

He was taken to a local hospital and then to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, but he never regained consciousness. On Monday, Ms. Baker-Roberts and the officer’s mother, Dotty Roberts, stood by his bed wearing plastic coveralls, gloves and masks and watched as he was taken off a ventilator.

Ms. Baker-Roberts left the room just after he took his last breath.

“I didn’t want to be in there,” she said. “It wasn’t him anymore.”

Ms. Baker-Roberts said she cannot recall much about the three weeks since her husband collapsed. She has tried to focus on their last night together, when they gazed up at the stars after he had built his 10-year-old son, Gavin, a miniature hockey game in the basement.

Mr. Roberts, who began his career in the town’s police department in 2000 as a dispatcher, met Ms. Baker-Roberts, a fourth and third grade teacher at Ridgewood Avenue School, at a community fund-raiser. He was instantly smitten.

“That’s the woman I am going to marry,” he told his mother that night.

The couple bought a dilapidated house in town covered with cigarette stains and filled with shag carpeting. They spent a year renovating it so it would be ready for their first child, Shea, 15, a girl they named after Shea Stadium, the former home of the Mets. She was followed by two more children, Natalie, 12, then Gavin.

Mr. Roberts had always wanted to be a police officer, but Mr. Roberts’s mother worried that her naturally affable son would become jaded by the work.

He never did, said Ms. Baker-Roberts.

“He still liked people,” she said. “He always saw the good in people.”

The job drew out his ability to connect with strangers and comfort them during difficult times, according to residents and fellow officers who told story after story about Mr. Roberts.

There was the couple who remembered how calm he was when he helped deliver their baby in their kitchen.

There was the older woman, forever grateful for the gentle way he held her hand when she broke her hip and they waited for an ambulance. And there was the father who struggled with a difficult son and remembered how Mr. Roberts looked him in the eye and reassured him that his boy was a good kid.

Ms. Baker-Roberts said her husband enjoyed going to the Starbucks in town, more to chat with customers than for the coffee.

“He wanted to make others happy,” Ned Roberts, Officer Roberts’s father, said at his memorial service on Thursday, which was held outside the municipal building.

Nearby, Gavin wore a police hat and carried an Irish Brigade flag with his father’s badge number, 69. Mr. Roberts liked collecting Irish memorabilia.

Officer Uliano, the president of the Glen Ridge Policemen’s Benevolent Association, recalled that Mr. Roberts often bought breakfast sandwiches and coffee for homeless people he encountered on Bloomfield Avenue.

Ms. Baker-Roberts said her husband was annoyed when the department got calls from residents complaining about homeless people.

“That always upset him,” she said. “It didn’t make sense to him that people would call about that.”

Amy Owens, a Realtor in the town and a friend of the family, saw Mr. Roberts two weeks before he got sick. She had recently rented a house to a couple who had accidentally locked their 8-month-old baby in the house and had called her in a panic. She told them to call the police.

Ms. Owens rushed to the house. When she got there, Officer Roberts opened the door, grinning.

“‘Amy, why would you rent them a house where the doorknobs don’t work?’” she remembered his asking.

After he got sick, Ms. Owens went to a printer in Bloomfield, a bordering town, to make hundreds of the #ROBSTRONG signs.

When the printer heard who they were for, he refused to let her pay.

“The owner said to me, ‘I know this guy,’” she said. “ ‘We get our bagel at the same time every morning.’”

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