Thomas Chatman, the first black police chief for York City Police, died Monday evening in his home.
Thomas Chatman, the first black police chief for York City Police, died Monday evening in his home. (Daily Record/Sunday News - File)

A true measure of a man, Bill Hose said, is how he handles adversity.

By that measure, there is not a tape measure long enough to take the true measure of Tom Chatman.

Chatman was among the first black officers in York City. He went on to become the city's first African-American chief of police, his dream job, only to lose it when a new mayor was elected. He led a drug investigation that resulted in the arrest of his own brother.

He endured, back in his days as a patrolman and later a detective, the most vile racial epithets from bigots and being called an Uncle Tom by members of his own community.

And through it all, he persevered.

"I know that stuff bothered him," said Hose, an old friend who followed Chatman as chief of police. "We talked about it."

But Chatman never let it affect how he did his job, or how he treated people.

He handled adversity with grace, Hose said.

Even during these past few weeks.

He was fighting cancer. It got the best of him, and on Monday night, he lost the battle, dying in his Springettsbury Township home with his wife of 42 years, Lee, by his side. He was 74.

"He was a great leader," Hose said. "And he was a great man."

Born Aug. 8, 1934, Thomas V. Chatman Jr. was born in York and grew up on South Penn Street. His father ran a janitorial business. He went to city schools - elementary schools were segregated then, and he attended Smallwood Elementary while white kids in his neighborhood went to Princess Street Elementary.

He knew when he was 10 years what he wanted to do with his life: He wanted to be a Marine and then a police officer. He wanted to go to college.

He joined the Marines after he graduated from William Penn Senior High School and served a three-year hitch in California. He returned to York in 1956 and got a job at the old York Naval Ordnance Plant, now Harley-Davidson. Six months into that job, he spotted an ad for police officers, and that was it. On Nov. 1, 1956, he joined the police department and set his eyes on the top job.

"I dreamed about it," he said in a 1987 interview. "Though at the time, the chances of me becoming chief were probably as remote as getting to the moon by walking."

He was on the street in 1969 when war broke out in the city - the race riots. Chatman served with distinction through it all.

Reflecting on it almost 20 years later, he said, "You've got to give some and take some. There was a lot of understanding that had to be done. It just wasn't a perfect world. It wasn't a perfect city."

He became a detective and moved through the ranks to captain. He earned his degree in police administration from York College in 1979. He didn't need the degree to be a leader in the police department.

"He was a police officer's policeman," said Mike Hill, who joined the force when Chatman was chief and later also became chief of police. "He was always someone I looked up to."

Then-Mayor Elizabeth Marshall appointed him chief in 1980.

"He was a great leader," Hose said. "He set the bar high for all of us."

Tom Gross, who served as a patrolman during Chatman's tenure and is now chief of the York Area Regional Police Department, said, "He was one of the good guys."

He led by example, police who knew him said. He always treated people the way he'd want to be treated, they all said. He had a stature and could be an imposing figure.

"He was the boss," said George Swartz, who joined the city force when Chatman was chief and is now chief of Spring Garden Township Police Department. "When he walked, the ground moved."

Reuben Zeager, who joined the city police department in 1968 and is now chief deputy in the York County Sheriff's Office, said, "He could be tough, but he was always fair. He was a compassionate man."

In 1982, then-Mayor William Althaus took office and fired Chatman as chief, replacing him with Hose. Hose remembered that, right after it happened, Chatman was the first person to congratulate him and offer whatever help he could to see that Hose was successful in the job.

"He handled that with such grace," Hose said. "It had to be tough for him."

In a 1997 interview, Chatman said he had to put his ego aside and do what was necessary. "An ego is something you can't buy anything with at the grocery store," he said.

Chatman remained as captain of operations and, as such, in 1985, he supervised an investigation that ended with his brother, Terry, being arrested for allegedly selling cocaine at his former bar, T.C.'s, on South Penn Street.

Chatman described the day of his brother's arrest as "the lowest day in my life. When they called me, I cried."

After leaving the police department, Chatman ran the city's parking bureau. In 1997, he retired from the city.

But he didn't retire. He was still very active with several community organizations - the Children's Home of York and the Mental Health Center, among others - and he picked up a part-time job at the courthouse, working as tipstaff for Judge John C. Uhler, whom he had known since the early 1970s.

"He was such a great guy," the judge said. "He was a highly valued and close friend."

Chatman was a golfer, playing often with Hose and other friends. When he went to college while serving on the police force, he lamented the fact that Saturday classes cut into his tee times.

He was also impeccable about his clothing. He was always dressed stylishly. "Even on the golf course," Hose said.

"Tom was a guy I admired and respected a great deal," Hose said. "Everything he did, he did with all his heart."

In 1987, Chatman spoke about being patient and said good things will come to you.

"Patience is probably the greatest attribute a person can have," he said. "Other people like to say you're lucky. I like to think God put me in the right place at the right time."

Thoughts on a mentor

Michael Hill, now a deputy in the York County Sheriff's Department, was the city's second black police chief, following the path blazed by Chatman.

Chatman swore Hill in as a city officer in April 1981. Hill visited with Chatman at Chatman's home Friday.

"We laughed a little, we joked a little," Hill said Tuesday.

Hill learned of Chatman's death from Judge John C. Uhler, for whom Chatman was a tipstaff in Common Pleas Court.

"He was the first black policeman to be hired in modern times," said Hill, who explained he knew of Chatman long before he became a police officer himself. "We didn't have too many (black officers) as I was growing up.

"He came up through the ranks. He made it easier for others who followed him. He was the first black detective, first black sergeant. I can only imagine what he went through the first day in the locker room.

"But he showed us if he can do it, we can do it."

"He expected 100 percent from you. If you strayed from that path, he had no hesitation in telling you. And if you got chewed out by Tom Chatman or (former chief) Bill Hose, you knew it."

Hill recalled Chatman as his mentor, someone he could go to with career and personal matters, and as a "true gentleman, a policeman's policeman."

"He's going to be missed by a multitude of people," Hill said. "That's how many people he touched, not just in the police field but also in the community."

  • Yorktown Square blog post on Chatman's groundbreaking career in law enforcement.



    From our archives: A 2006 profile

    HIS STORY: THOMAS CHATMAN

    Barrier-breaking former York police officer knows just 'sitting around' just won't cut it

    Fifty years ago, 72-year-old Thomas Chatman Jr. first donned the uniform of a York City Police officer.

    Since then, Chatman, who went on to become the city's chief of police in 1981, has totaled six months and two days - a weekend - of retirement.

    "When I was 10 years old, there were three things I wanted to do," Chatman said. "Be a Marine, go to college and be a police officer. I accomplished all three."

    Chatman, whose family was one of many to migrate to York from Bamberg County, S.C., served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1953 to 1956, was a police officer from 1956 to 1986 and graduated from York College in 1979.

    His tenure with the city police department included a number of firsts. He was the first black detective, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and chief. He and Amos Palmer also were the first black city police officers to ride in squad cars, he said.

    "It gives me a sense of pride," Chatman said. "I thank God and the citizens of York for the opportunity to serve them and that they afforded me a good life for my family."

    After retiring from the police force in 1986, Chatman took the weekend off before becoming the director of the city's parking bureau. He held that job for 11 years before retiring again in 1997.

    Then he played golf. That kept him occupied for a number of months. Then he ran into a law clerk for a York County Common Pleas Court judge on the golf course. The law clerk told him Judge John C. Uhler was looking for a tipstaff.

    He and Uhler, a York County District Attorney while Chatman was a police officer, have known each other for more than 40 years, Chatman said.

    After six months of retirement, Chatman went back to work as Uhler's tipstaff. Golf became a weekend exercise and he has been a fixture around the courthouse since then.

    "I enjoy working," Chatman said. "It gives me a purpose to get up in the morning. I firmly believe that you deteriorate if you are just sitting around all day. My father was 87 and still working."

    Chatman also lives with prostate cancer, a disease diagnosed a few years ago. He said his cancer is not cured or in remission but that he has no major symptoms and that a test last year showed it had not spread.

    "I really don't know where I'm at with it," he said. "But, thank the Lord, I'm not suffering."

    The York native, who has a long list of volunteer work including serving on boards for the American Red Cross, Crispus Attucks, the Children's Home of York, sheltered workshops and mental health programs, continues to offer community service by urging men 50 and older to have prostate examinations.

    "The earlier you do it, the better off you are going to be," he said.

    A third retirement is nowhere in the near future, Chatman said. He wouldn't know what to do with himself. Only so much golf can be played.