“It is my hope that in the 27 years I was here, that I, or some police officer, did something that impacted your life the way this ceremony has impacted mine,” Hightower, 78, said at the ceremony at the steps of the building that is now named for him. “Success is being able to look back on your career and be able to tell yourself, ‘I did it, and I did it right and I have no apologies.’ I was able to do that.”
Moments later, a granite pedestal was unveiled proclaiming the building the “Robert E. Hightower Cobb County Police Headquarters.” The unveiling at the base of the building’s flagpoles capped an hour-long ceremony at the complex at 140 North Marietta Parkway.
Hightower, a former Navy SEAL, came to Cobb as police chief in 1972 from his job as a lieutenant with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. His time as a leader in Georgia ended up lasting from the chairmanship of Ernest Barrett to that of current Attorney General Sam Olens. In 1993, he became the first director of the Cobb County Public Safety Department.
In 1999, Hightower was appointed by then-Gov. Roy Barnes as Colonel of the Georgia State Patrol. In 2000, he was appointed to the newly created position of Georgia Department of Public Safety commissioner, and soon after as chairman of the Georgia Homeland Security Task Force. He stayed in those positions until shortly after Barnes left office in 2003.
Hightower sat in a wheelchair to the left of the speakers Thursday, not listed as a speaker on the event’s program. Along with Barnes, current Cobb Police Chief John Houser, who started in the force under Hightower; commission Chairman Tim Lee; County Manager David Hankerson, who Hightower recommended to be hired; and Lance LoRusso, a friend and former Cobb police officer who is now an attorney for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police; praised Hightower’s career.
“If you want to know why we have a county that grows, and people want to come here and live — one of the primary architects of that is Bob Hightower,” said Barnes, now a Marietta lawyer. “He made us what we are today. A place safe enough to live, do business and raise children. And for that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Once he took the microphone, Hightower showed the stroke didn’t impact his sense of humor. He cracked up the audience of 250 for much of his nearly half-hour speech, roasting Hankerson, Barnes and LoRusso.
He took the attorneys to task for representing clients they knew were guilty and recalled a time when Hankerson wanted to participate in a charity motorcycle event that went through Cobb and into Paulding County. He joked that he had long questioned the county manager’s intelligence because of his motorcycle hobby.
“When you and that motorcycle group cross the line into Paulding County, the intelligence level in both counties is going to go up,” Hightower said.
But Hightower choked up when talking about the adventures he now goes on with his 12-year-old grandson, Bobby.
“Twenty years from now, he might be able to come back here and look at that name, and it’s gonna conjure up some good memories,” Hightower said, motioning to the pedestal.
After the ceremony, Hightower said he is recovering from the Oct. 20 stroke he suffered at his home on St. Simons Island. He still lacks the use of his left hand, but he expects to regain that.
“As soon as I get the left hand to work, I’ll be fine,” Hightower said. “Until I was 75, I had perfect health, so I can’t complain about one setback.”
Lee said it was a thrill to have Hightower at the event.
“All too often, we wait too long to recognize those who deserve it,” Lee said. “And being able to do it while he’s still here is important to Director Hightower, the people he’s led and the people he’s served.”
Among those attending the ceremony were State Rep. Judy Manning (R-Marietta) and commissioners Helen Goreham, JoAnn Birrell and Woody Thompson. Bill Byrne, who was chairman when Hightower served as public safety director and is now running again for the same office, was also there.
While the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved renaming the police headquarters for Hightower in August 2009, the process of making that designation visible to the public has been slow. A few months ago, lettering with the building’s new moniker went up near the Cobb Police seal on the north façade of the building, located between the Marietta Square and WellStar Kennestone Hospital.
Houser said he discussed having a dedication ceremony with Hightower about a year ago, but the former chief’s health problems caused a delay. Yet, in the end, Houser couldn’t have asked for a better event.
“It’s great, the weather was perfect,” Houser said. “The foundation he built is what we all work under today.”