A remembrance: Patricia Roberts

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Elisabetta Zengaro and Patricia Roberts. (Photo: Matteo Zengaro)
Elisabetta Zengaro and Patricia Roberts. (Photo: Matteo Zengaro)

Delta State’s adviser loses battle with cancer

 By Elisabetta Zengaro and Debra Chandler Landis
Special to College Media Review

While the late Patricia Roberts battled ovarian cancer, she also fought for college journalism at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.

She did both with grit and grace, and her journalistic legacy continues, say those who knew her.

Roberts, 66, adviser to The Delta Statement student newspaper and the university’s sole journalism professor, died Dec. 7 from complications from chemotherapy. A memorial service was held at the Bishop-King Funeral Home in Lake Village, Arkansas, on Dec. 11.

In spring 2015, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees approved the discontinuation of five academic programs, including journalism, communications/theater studies, and modern foreign languages, at Delta State University.

The university also decided to eliminate money for printing of The Delta Statement.

Roberts told the Student Press Law Center, Huffington Post and other media organizations the plan to eliminate the journalism program was announced after a Statement story about a lawsuit a former Division of Languages and Literature chairman filed against Bill LaForge, Delta State University president. However, LaForge denied the move was retaliatory, and said the $1 million budget cuts were university-wide.

Throughout it all, Roberts never lost hope.

“Patricia Roberts was a journalism adviser that every student deserves,” said Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director. “Even when she was very ill—how ill she never let me know—Patricia was still sending me messages about ways to preserve the journalism program at Delta State, to which she had devoted so much. I came to know Patricia as a great journalist, a great fighter, and a great friend.”

Said former student and Delta Democrat-Times News Editor Catherine Kirk: “Patricia was so much more than a teacher to me. She was my mentor, my cheerleader and more than anything else, my friend. She reached out and cared on a much deeper level than academics.”

“I reached a pretty low point while I was in school and was ready to give up entirely,” said Kirk, a graduate of the Delta State journalism program. “She wouldn’t have that, though. She never stopped believing in me and kept pushing me to do more than I thought possible for myself.”

“She (Patricia) often spoke about her time at the Delta Democrat-Times and how she has witnessed it during its highs and lows through the years,” Kirk said. “She was a firm believer in good, honest journalism. When I was hired at the DDT, she told me she knew it would continue to be a high quality paper because I was there. If I can produce even a fraction of the quality of work she produced throughout her amazing career, I know I will have done well.”

In 2005, Roberts left a position with the University of Arkansas at Monticello to work as an assistant professor of journalism at Delta State University and to lead the then newly established journalism program. While at Delta State, she served as coordinator of the journalism program—the sole journalism faculty member—advised the Delta State student newspaper, The Delta Statement, and taught courses such as writing for the mass media, news reporting, feature writing, editing for print media, print layout and design, and history of journalism.

Under Roberts’ tutelage, the journalism program achieved distinction, and The Delta Statement received numerous state and regional awards for student reporting, photography, graphic designs, and layout.

Roberts was fierce and unrelenting in the defense of her students, and many call her the best professor they ever had, LoMonte said, adding, “I came to know Patricia as a person of great principle who had a well-developed sense of outrage that drives all of the great journalists that shine their light on injustice. … Patricia truly did believe in the power of journalism, and to right the wrongs that will make people’s lives better.”

In September 2015, Roberts, fighting cancer, never lost her sense of courage, determined to pull through, not for herself, but for her students.

“I have to say that Patricia and I shared one ideal, which is to listen to your true self,” said Thomas Laird, family friend and fellow journalist.

“I know that in the last months of her life, as she was fighting for her life, people closest to her were having to say to her, ‘You can’t think about your students now, Patricia.’ She wanted to get up out of that bed and go back and teach her students. That’s not something you do for a living. It’s something you believe in, and her whole life was driven by that sense,” Laird said. “I’d like to think that the best thing we could see in the memoriam of that would be the continuation of the journalism program.”

Roberts was born on Sept. 13, 1949, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the daughter of Carey F. and Lunetta G. Roberts. Her first reporting job was at the Delta Democrat-Times, where she worked from 1967 to 1969; she worked under the editorial leadership of Hodding Carter III and the newspaper founder, Pulitzer Prize-winner Hodding Carter Jr.

She held a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. While completing her bachelor’s degree, Roberts was a staff reporter for The Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., where she covered primarily the local government. She specialized in magazine writing at Columbia University.

Roberts garnered award-winning, multi-media, international journalism experience that took her to several U.S. sites, as well as such cities as Paris, France, and Kathmandu, Nepal. She worked for the Miami Herald, PBS, Newsweek and Reuters.

In 2003, Roberts decided she wanted to educate and train future journalists and accepted an instructor of journalism position at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She also helped students establish an online student newspaper, the UAM Voice.

In 2005, she left UAM to work at Delta State University.

Of Patricia Roberts, Zengaro writes: “In my current position, I do a lot of feature writing, which is something I learned from Patricia. Feature writing was probably my biggest weakness, and she was determined to make a feature writer out of me before I graduated. She always pushed me to go the extra mile in whatever I wanted to do, and some of my favorite memories of her are from our class discussions, where she would often share her memories working as a journalist, while encouraging us to pursue our dreams.

“For Patricia, no dream was too big. I remember sitting in feature writing class one day when she taught us how to write a query letter.

“She wanted us to draft a query letter to submit our best feature we had written to our dream magazine. I like sports, so I chose to submit a story to Sports Illustrated I wrote on a former baseball coach at Delta State. At the time I was writing the query letter, I didn’t think she really expected us to send it. However, she helped me go through the process of drafting the letter, and at the end of class, she suggested I send it on to Sports Illustrated.

“It took me a little while to get up the courage to do that, but I eventually did. Being a college student at a small university, I never expected a response back. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I received a response from Chris Hunt at Sports Illustrated, even though it was to tell me they couldn’t use my story. I never would have tried something like that, if Patricia hadn’t encouraged me.

“Patricia was a firm believer that anything was possible in life. She helped give me the courage to get out of my comfort zone and to believe in myself. I think she believed in me more than I believed in myself at times, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her training and encouragement. I learned a lot from Patricia, but what I learned most from her was not to give up. I learned that as long as you try, you never really fail.”

She is survived by her son, Stephan Roberts, and daughter, Gita Sunuwar, both of Lake Village, Arkansas; her sister, Marjorie Roberts Hooper of Jacksonville, Arkansas; her brothers, David A. Roberts of Star City, Arkansas, and Phillip P. Roberts of Cypress, Texas, and her two nieces and two nephews.

Memorial donations can be made to Save the Children and PAWS:

Save the Children
501 Kings Hwy E – Suite 400
Fairfield, CT 06825

1119 Bradley 25 N.
Warren, AR 71671

Debra Landis

Debra Chandler Landis is the editor of College Media Review and student publications adviser at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Elisabetta Zengaro, former editor-in-chief of The Delta Statement, is a graduate student at Delta State University, where she is earning a master’s degree in sport and human performance, with a concentration in sports management. She is a graduate assistant in the university’s sports information department.