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Not Just a PAL, a Hero

Ernie Rehr stands in front of the PAL banner at Rizzo PAL. | Photo by Tom Beck.

From now on, every day is a Saturday for Ernie Rehr.

“That’s what he says whenever people ask him how his retirement is going,” said his wife, Robin, in a phone interview. “Right now, we’re just taking a season of rest and figuring out what the next step is.”

Nov. 8 was Rehr’s last day as the director of the Rizzo Police Athletic League at the corner of Belgrade and Clearfield in Port Richmond. It’s a position he served in for more than 28 years since taking over the center on July 2, 1991. What’s he been doing with himself?

“It’s very simple,” he told the Star in the back room of Rizzo PAL. “I’ve been enjoying time with my wife. I get to spend time with her and just do stuff around the house. We’re taking small trips here and there and just enjoying ourselves together.”

Aside from a trip to Lancaster, Rehr and his wife haven’t taken advantage of retirement too much just yet. But they have plans.

“We got a couple things on our bucket list,” Rehr said. “I do want to take Robin to the Alaska Cruise. We’re going to go down to Disney World in Florida and we’ll do some other things. But right now, we’re chilling for a little bit.”

For the past 28 years, Rehr hasn’t done much chilling until now. During that time, he’s run PAL’s golf program, served as the coordinator for the wrestling program and won three national championships during his tenure as PAL’s basketball coach in 1992, 1993 and 1994. Since 2001, he’s spearheaded Positive Images, a program designed specifically to help girls aged 10 to 18 better themselves and build self-confidence. The program, which meets Monday nights, features guest appearances from women leaders around the city. A recent meeting featured Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter and Deputy Fire Commissioner Crystal Yates. The girls’ “mind, body and spirit” are what he tries to hit on in every meeting.

“Something else that stands out is that he always tried to insert some culture into our lives,” said former PAL kid Jessica Gallagher, who is the Positive Images coordinator at PAL. “We’re just some Port Richmond/Kensington/Fishtown/Bridesburg kids, and Officer Ernie and Positive Images took us to the opera. The actual, not-English, in-a-foreign-language opera.”

For Gallagher, it was an eye-opening adventure she hadn’t felt before.

“That was my first experience of going to something so profound. It was crazy.” 

Gallagher remembered that Rehr would always say that everybody goes through life with “a toolbox.”

“For a while, he would call them purses but he wanted it to be more politically correct,” she said. “He’d say that, every day, you should be learning some type of new lesson to put into your toolbox.”

Gianna Bradley, another former PAL goer who currently serves as an attendance coordinator at PAL, called Rehr “a parental figure.”

“Ernie took me to my first Sixers game, my first Phillies game, my first Flyers game,” she said. “He did it all.”

Rehr said the “coolest thing” about his time in PAL was getting to interact with somewhere from 125 to 150 second-generation PAL kids whose parents were former PAL kids.

“That’s one of the most rewarding parts of my career in PAL is getting a chance not only to coach the parents, but then coach their kids,” he said.

Scott Goldberg and his 11-year-old son, Aiden, are just one of those pairs of second-generation PAL kids. Goldberg called Rehr a “father figure” who was extremely “knowledgeable” about sports.

Ernie Rehr stands with two sets of second generation PAL kids. To his left is Scott Goldberg and his son Aiden, and Jennifer McIntyre and her daughter Erin. | Submitted by Scott Goldberg.

“He had no problem raising his voice if he needed to, but he would joke as much as possible,” said Goldberg. “He’s just a good guy and he did things for kids we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

Prior to running PAL, Rehr’s life was filled with sports, activism and family. From 1990 until he took his position at PAL, he served on the police department’s Racial Interaction Task Force at McVeigh Recreation Center in Harrowgate, where he organized sports games and tournaments between kids of all different backgrounds in an attempt to promote peace and camaraderie between children in an area that had seen its fair share of racial incidents. According to Rehr, it’s a position he was asked to man by the police commissioner at the time, Willie Williams. 

“A younger kid doesn’t know race,” Rehr told the Star. “So if you bring them together in the athletic field, have them play ball together at 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years old and then have them grow up together like that – the harmony is unbelievable.”

Before that, Rehr served as an officer in the 25th Police District. It’s a job he was was drawn to because of his father, who also served as a police officer. Because Rehr’s mother died of cancer when he was 14, he often served as a parental figure for his three younger siblings. As a teenager, he had to stay home with them while his dad would be at work. In his youth, Rehr played baseball through college. At his peak, he was a first-team all-star center fielder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Junior College Collegiate Championship Division during his time playing ball for Community College of Philadelphia. Just like becoming a police officer, baseball was also an activity in which he took after his dad. His dad, Ernie Rehr Sr., briefly spent some time in the minor leagues of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization as a pitcher and outfielder in the ‘40s.

Fast forward about 50 years, and Rehr is now retired. But he’s still active. He’s been granted a lifetime free pass to Juniata Golf Course, something he plans to take advantage of come springtime. According to his wife, he’s also learning the way his own household works. Because Rehr typically worked from 1 to 9 p.m. or 2 to 10 p.m. on weekdays, he’s had to adjust to life at home during these times.

“It’s very different from the workplace,” said Robin. “He can’t have total control and he can’t micromanage. All this is very new to him. He’s learning how he did things at night from when he wasn’t here.”

But mostly, he’s just enjoying attending his grandchildren’s sports games.

“Ernie is not a man who likes a lot of fanfare for himself,” Robin added. “Everything he’s done was for one purpose – well, actually two. Number one for the Lord, and number two was for the kids. It’s hard for him to be a part of that community for so long, it’s hard for him to turn that off.”

But not too hard.

“Right now,” Rehr said gleefully when asked how retirement is going, “every day is a Saturday for me.”

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