He touched many
Published 8:13 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Roberson helped bringimproved quality of lifeto those in eastern N.C.
By GREG KATSKI
No one word can describe the kind of man W. R. “Bill” Roberson Jr. was or the life he lived.
Visionary, pioneer, promoter, leader, giver, confidant, loving father, husband, neighbor and friend: Roberson was all these things to many different people. Roberson died Saturday.
To those he touched, Roberson was humble, sharing, hard-working, honest, smart, stern and welcoming.
With his many accomplishments in hand, heart and mind, Roberson laid down to sleep in the early morning hours Saturday, ready to welcome the Lord Almighty, said his only son, Riley Roberson.
Roberson, 90 at the time of his death, had grown fond of Elvis Presley’s hymns and gospel recordings, his son said.
Early Saturday morning, the elder Roberson asked his caretaker, William Bowen, to play some hymns.
He asked Bowen to hold his hand, and then he went to sleep, said the younger Roberson.
W. R. “Bill” Roberson Jr. was born on June 6, 1918, the son of Rosa and W. R. Roberson Sr.
Roberson, the oldest of three children, graduated from Washington High School, attended Davidson College and graduated from Strayer-Bryant-Stratton College in Baltimore in 1938.
His father was the founder of Roberson’s Beverages, Inc. Roberson’s father, “Daddy Bill,” as he is warmly referred to by his family, was a devout Christian and hard-working salesman.
So much so that he stepped aside as chairman and CEO of Roberson’s Beverages, Inc. in his while in his 50s to let his son run the family business.
With business experience gained at the helm of the beverage company, Roberson channeled his love for people and the community by founding WRRF radio station in Washington in 1942.
Roberson, ever the community servant, took this passion one step farther when he brought established WITN-TV in Washington. The station, an NBC affiliate, went on air Dec. 28, 1955.
Roberson served as chairman and CEO of WITN for 30 years.
He was regarded as a perfectionist by those who worked closely with him, including his secretary, Helen Jackson.
Jackson was hired as Roberson’s first full-time secretary in 1960, and she worked for him for 20 years.
Respect was something that Roberson gave to all those who worked for and with him, and it was something that he expected in return, said Jackson.
Roberson also tried to keep a family atmosphere intact at the station. He didn’t view himself as anyone’s superior, and he refused to be addressed as such, said Dick Paul, former vice president of operations at WITN.
Paul, who was hired by Roberson in 1969, used to confide in Roberson. And he was never afraid that his boss would shoot down his ideas.
This is because Roberson had the utmost confidence in his employees, Paul said.
Roberson hired only those willing to work just as hard as he did, said his son.
Which for most people might prove taxing, his son noted.
And from there he was out of bed and ready for a new day.
Her father’s attitude was shared by his loving wife, Frances, said the elder Roberson’s daughter, Robin Potts. Together they set out to improve the lives of those in the community, region and state.
The neighborhood girl that the elder Roberson met when he was 12 years old and would go on to marry also managed to soften him up a little, according to family members.
Riley Roberson said he told his father days before his death, “I think mom took the rough edge off of you.”
The couple’s community service to Washington and eastern North Carolina started in the private sector, but it progressed to the public sector.
And the elder Roberson’s focus never wavered during the transition, according to his son.
Roberson was elected and served as a representative in the N.C. General Assembly from 1966 through 1974. During that time, he introduced or co-introduced legislation that helped create Goose Creek State Park, the Swan Quarter/Ocracoke ferry, Beaufort County Community College and the Coastal Area Management Act.
Even if that meant making enemies in the business world.
Riley Roberson once asked his father if, while writing the act, he considered the backlash that CAMA would draw from area developers.
Roberson responded, saying “the citizens own the rivers, streams and wetlands. We need to preserve them.”
While serving in the General Assembly, Roberson kept working at WITN.
After finishing work at the station on Friday afternoons, Roberson would go right to work on any legislative matters, said Jackson. In addition to working for Roberson at WITN, Jackson served as his legislative secretary for three terms.
Roberson found time to watch the news broadcasts on WITN and rival stations WNCT and WCTI at the same time.
Riley Roberson recalled his father’s three-TV arrangement in his father’s den. The elder Roberson had the sets stacked three high so he could watch for any mistakes in broadcasts, news stories scooped and advertisers used by the rival stations.
Roberson reached the pinnacle of his public service when he was appointed secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation by Gov. Jim Hunt on July 20, 1981. He would serve in this capacity until the conclusion of the governor’s term in 1985.
The Roberson family sold WITN in 1985, but it continued to be intimately involved in its day-to-day operations.
Mike Weeks was hired as general manager of WITN in 1991, almost six years after Roberson sold the station, but he remembers being sought out by Roberson.
Roberson and his wife were two of the first people Weeks met after moving to Washington.
Weeks remembers Roberson as being helpful and humble.
On April 12, 1996, the state gave something back to Roberson when U.S. Highway 264 from Washington to Belhaven was named W. R. “Bill” Roberson Memorial Highway.
At Roberson’s funeral service Monday at the First Presbyterian Church, where he was an elder and deacon, the Rev. L. Spottswood Graves remarked about the uniqueness of such an honor.
Hundreds attended the funeral service, including many prominent figures in the community.
Riley Roberson said his father was never without his wallet and notepad, dying with them at his side. The younger Roberson believes they serve as symbols of the man his father was: a keen observer and a willing helper.
Jackson said Roberson wrote his obituary, probably using that same notepad, “because no one else could remember all the things he did.”