Bill Robertson: a legacy of leadership, education and inspiration
by S. Rotan Hale
British philosopher Herbert Read once said, “A man of personality can formulate ideals, but only a man of character can achieve them.” William Bernard Robertson was by all means a man of ideals – backed unequivocally by character forged in principles, old world dignity and an abiding desire to serve.
Robertson, a Roanoke native, was one of many stellar products of the famed Lucy Addison High School at which he would return later as a teacher. Throughout his career he taught at elementary, junior high and high school levels and was once principal at Hurt Park Elementary School. Ultimately he rose to administration and became Supervisor of Roanoke City Public Schools. Later after moving to Florida, he taught at Sligh Middle School in inner-city Tampa.
He matriculated to Bluefield State College (BSC), Bluefield, West VA, where he received a bachelor’s degree (BA) in secondary education (1954) and a BA in elementary education (1956). He treasured Bluefield State and attributed it to giving him the wisdom through which he actualized his life’s mission.
Recognizing Robertson as an accomplished alumnus he was keynote speaker at the 2019 BSC commencement. His speech was followed by a surprise announcement of the Wendell Hardway Library being renamed to the William B. Robertson Library in honor of his notable career in education and public service. Oddly, although BCS maintains its federal status as an HBCU, student body percentages show the college being 84% White.
He furthered his education obtaining a masters degree at nearby Radford University in 1965 (formally Radford College) where he was the first male Black graduate.
Robertson joined the Jaycees in 1966 and because of his determination and deep desire to serve special needs children, he initiated a statewide program that raised funding and founded Camp Virginia Jaycee in Bedford, VA. Amazingly, the camp served over 40,000 individuals for over 40 years.
Robertson’s outstanding accomplishments are extensive regarding education, civic engagement and service in a number of high-profile political positions with five U.S. presidents over six decades.
He was appointed by President Ford as director of the Peace Corps for Kenya and the Republic of Seychelles, an island country off the coast of Africa. It was a position he held through President Carter’s term that followed.
Although he was not a Richard Nixon enthusiast, Robertson agreed to serve with the U.S. Department of State and traveled extensively (globally) as a member of Nixon’s mental retardation committee. He was also Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administrations of presidents Reagan and George H. Bush. That appointment allowed him to travel to all 54 countries in Africa.
When Linwood Holton was elected governor in 1970 Robertson made history as the first Black advisor appointed to a Virginia governor – that action elevated Robertson’s prominence considerably.
Although a Republican, Holton was a staunch anti-segregationist and launched measures to desegregate schools. He once made headlines escorting his young daughter to a predominately Black Richmond high school she was enrolled in.
Robertson was an avid reader of newspapers even as a teenager. “My father thought very highly of newspapers reading them from cover to cover at just thirteen years old,” said his daughter Victoria. “When he was young our family read and circulated a lot of African American newspapers and the Roanoke Tribune was included. I loved and looked up to my father with great respect. He had such a balanced mind,” she added.
In a note to Tribune editor, Robertson reflecting on his youth, while expressing his congratulations to The Roanoke Tribune during one of its Anniversaries, wrote:
“Claudia, what a wonderful tribute to you, your father, your family and the paper itself. I am proud to have been a Roanoke Tribune paper carrier as a boy in Roanoke. Best wishes, William B. Robertson.”
Through an illustrious career, William Bernard Robertson, with his “balanced mind” etched his place in history and will be forever remembered as one of the state’s most esteemed and accomplished African American notables. The well-known educator and civic activist who truly led a life of service passed away peacefully at age 88 on June 22 at his home in Maryland where he and his wife Ruth resided.
Robertson had been working on publishing his life story. The book titled, “Lifting Every Voice: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power,” is scheduled to be released early next year.
Services honoring his legacy will be held Thursday, July 29 at 1pm in the Brown-Gilbert Basic Science Building Auditorium, Bluefield State College 219 Rock Street Bluefield, WV and also a Memorial Mass on Sat. August 7, at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Tampa, FL.