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Oct 16, 2015

An investment in faculty

By Richard "Dick" Roberts

On Aug. 28th, Richard "Dick" Roberts came to JMU to address the faculty. He had a very special message. He came to announce a $1 million gift to establish the Shirley Hanson Roberts ('56) and Richard D. Roberts Endowment for Faculty. The gift, unprecedented in the university's history, supports a special brand of education, where the commitment to student success by a deeply engaged faculty sets JMU apart. The Roberts' endowment affirms a faculty whose first commitment is to the students they teach. During a recent interview at his home in Virginia Beach, Mr. Roberts reflected on his life with his beloved Shirley and what they know to be the essence of the Madison Experience.


There's a tapestry hanging in my bedroom. It's of my wife, Shirley Hanson Roberts. Her name should sound familiar. The university named The Shirley Hanson Roberts Center for Music Performance for her. She's a beautiful woman. The tapestry was woven when she was 60, and it's so fine you'd think it was a photograph. I had it framed. It's the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.

In a way, that tapestry represents what she and I believe we've seen at JMU. It's about relationships, like ours has always been - relationships that are rich and fulfilling and that make a difference in others' lives. Shirley, who graduated with the Class of 1956, has certainly made a difference in my life.

Shirley became a Navy wife when we were first married 58 years ago. Years later, friends told me that every time I went out on a submarine Shirley was scared to death, but she never said to me, "It's either me or the submarine." She never did. We could be up in European arctic waters, doing sonar signatures on the Soviet Northern Fleets ... but she never said that.

After I left the Navy and went to Harvard Business School, she supported me. She taught school. I wouldn't have made it through without her help. She's always supported me. During my years with the TeleCable division of Landmark Communications, which later became an independent company, she was always by my side. Together we raised three daughters. Now we have five grandchildren, and Shirley is still by my side.

With this gift, Shirley and I can help and encourage the kind of relationship between faculty and students that has been so successful, so JMU will continue to produce students who are successful and happy throughout their lives, as Shirley and I have been - students who "love it here."

I hear people at JMU talking about student success, and I think that takes the same kind of commitment Shirley has always made to me. That's what I see in the faculty at JMU.

I have always told my people never to say "never." But I'm breaking my own rule here because I have never - never - heard any student say anything other than "I love it here at JMU." I especially listened to the boys - 18- and 19-year-olds can be cynical. And even they love it here. That's what I've heard since Shirley and I have engaged with JMU after coming to her 50th reunion in 2006.

Those words "I really love it here" struck me. Then I read in Madison magazine a student saying, "I can call my professor at 8 o'clock at night, and he will talk with me." There has to be a reason.

It has a lot to do with the commitment of the faculty at JMU. It's a unique difference from what I have seen at other large universities. I bet there isn't another one on the scope of JMU in this country where professors make themselves so available.

JMU has not deviated from the teaching experience that it valued when Shirley graduated with her teaching degree. That teaching experience - that closeness of the faculty and staff with students - is so unique that it deserves to be fertilized.

That's what Shirley and I hope our gift will do - fertilize the rich relationships that develop here. It takes a special kind of person to be so committed. I learned that from Shirley.

I recognize something else, too, that's special about JMU, and that's something I learned in business.

I had a life-changing experience in my business when I was 50 years old. During a deep depression, I had to change my modus operandi. Instead of giving orders, as I had done for so long, I would ask my associates, "Well, what do you think, Gordon? What do you think, Jim?" I would give them plenty of time. We'd go around the table. When it was all over - when my health returned - we never changed the way we did things. We used to have a motto, "All wisdom does not emanate from Norfolk, Virginia." There was real wisdom in that change. We took everyone's wisdom and made decisions that way. I see that happening at JMU.

Dick and Shirley Roberts outside home

"Student success takes the same kind of commitment Shirely has always made to me," says Roberts, here with Shirley ('56) outside their Virginia Beach home.

Professors don't put up a steel curtain. Instead, they offer opportunities for students to learn along with them. For instance, professors involve students in their own work. If a student is engaged with a professor's research or contributes to a paper, the student's name is listed along with the professor. That kind of opportunity can follow a student for 10 or 15 years.

JMU's success is really about the success of the faculty to engage with students, just like my marriage to Shirley has been successful because of her commitment to me. Since I met Shirley on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach more than 58 years ago, we have always pulled together. Now, Shirley is battling Alzheimer's, and we're still pulling together. I'm pulling a little harder these days.

Relationships are the most important things in life. In the end, nothing else matters. And no one has been more important to me than Shirley. She's why I'm here today - why she and I are making this commitment to JMU to support the faculty. We hope that through this endowment the president or the provost will be able to recognize or reward JMU's distinctive kind of teaching.








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