Q&A with Charles Roberts
Communications department, 1970-1982
What have you done since you left Central?
In January 1982, when the temperature was -25 degrees, I applied for every job in communications department I could find that would put me in a warmer climate. McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., hired me to be the chair of its communication and theatre department. In 1990, I took a position at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., which was closer to my family.
I was appointed chair of the department of communication, but in truth it was a much different department than the name would indicate. It had speech, public relations, broadcasting, journalism, advertising, theater, dance and women’s studies. I helped the department grow from 11 professors when I came in 1990 to 31 professors in 2010 when I retired.
My wife Regi retired in 2008. We bought a house near our daughter, outside Washington, D.C., and now live just 15 minutes from our two grandchildren. I still teach some online, do oil painting a few hours a week (memories of Larry Mills flow through my mind), read at least a book each week, work out and cook as much as I can.
We are planning for more travel, walking and “hobbying”—and look forward to many more years spent fondly remembering our days in Pella.
Who are the Central community members you stay in touch with?
Bette Brunsting and I chat each and every April when we each wish the other a happy birthday. I’ve also tried to keep in touch with other students, but alas have not been as successful. The three notable successes I have had were with Tom Le Vine ’80, Jason Vines ’82 and Jann Freed ’77. Just a year ago I was finally able to return papers they had submitted in the 1970s. I did apologize for being somewhat tardy in returning them, but I maintained that the valuable feedback contained in my remarks more than outweighed the lapse.
But every day I am surrounded by Central College students and faculty in my house. Every wall has artwork that I had the wisdom to purchase those many years ago. We built special shelves to display the pots that Dean Hutchins and other students cast. We have a large painting by Carol Locker’s sister and sketches and woodcuts by John Smalley ’78. On a table next to me is one of John Vruwink’s ceramic whistles. We have batiks and drawings from almost every class from 1970 through 1982. Central is central for me 24/7.
What do you hope Central students gained from your classes?
I was privileged to teach the largest class then being taught at Central (120-180 students a term) and some of the smallest. (Harry Smith ’73 and Darwin Edeker ’74 suffered through the smallest class.) Many years later, when introducing Harry Smith to an audience on one occasion, I maintained that I had taught him “everything I knew,” and then expanded that I was thankful that he had gone on to learn much, much more. I hope that I was able to share with students as much information as I had available. Even more I hope they learned how to learn on their own. The assignments I gave required that they be creative and work impossible hours. Harry Smith’s first video gig was a masterpiece entitled the “Harry Krishna Hour.” I do hope they learned much about communication, but I also hope that they learned that quality work gets rewarded.
What did you like best about Central?
The tried-and-true response is typically “the people.” I did glory in the enthusiasm and intelligence of the students. Few students were merely there to get a degree. Most wanted an education and more. Many (not just “a few” or “some”) demanded that I give them more responsibility, more challenges, and, shudder, more work. It always came as a pleasant shock when I understood that the students were not interested in just getting through—they wanted to milk their education for all they could get out of it.
As importantly, I reveled in the “community of scholars” that was the faculty. From the get-go, I felt I was one of them, even though I knew little about academia when I came to Central. (For at least two years, I though “Dean” was Jim Graham’s first name, not his honorific.) After being on campus only five years or so, I was chair of my department and a member of both the curriculum committee and the policy and personnel Committee. In front of the whole faculty, Bette Brunsting and I debated whether to remain a three-term calendar or change to a two-semester model. The faculty then voted and a decision was made. No backrooms, no power cliques, no power brokers—just individual faculty members making sense of a situation after hearing both sides presented as logically and forcefully as the two of us could manage.
Though I was delighted that Coach Schipper was the first person to congratulate me on the birth of my first child (at 7 a.m. in front of the café), I looked forward more to going to the football game that night to proclaim the wondrous event to the whole assembled bleachers full of fans, made even more special in that we won the game in the last 20 seconds and went on to win the national championship that year.
That is what I loved most and missed most in the years that followed my leaving Pella: being a Central College family member.
What are your favorite Central memories?
I remember my first Public Speaking class. I gave them an anonymous feedback form at mid-semester to fill out, asking them how I was doing and requesting suggestions for change. One of the items asked students to rate me, on a scale of one to five, with five being “great.” More than a few added a 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 and circled the TEN! Couldn’t get my hat on my head for days.
I remember assigning a persuasive task in my Persuasion class. I wanted each person to develop a strategy for having the rest of the class like him or her more. Some chose to give persuasive speeches. A few others brought in food and fed us all. One notable young lady brought in beanbag chairs and had her sorority sisters feed the men grapes as they lounged in beanbags. One talented student rewrote the tune “Mandy” and sang to each young lady, substituting each woman’s name for “Mandy” (Kurt Langel ’79 won using that tactic). But one gentleman decided that the class would like him more if he “knocked the professor down a few notches.” I don’t remember the total theoretical support for his action, but I do remember him asking me to remove my glasses and then hitting me in the face with a real pie. I do not remember who the student was, but I do remember ending the class period abruptly and never offering the same assignment again!
My most favorite memory was journeying across campus, saying “hello” to students and faculty as I traveled the three or four minutes it took to walk from my home to my office. Even in the -25 degree weather that I sometimes encountered, that was my special time each day.
When I left Central, they had recently completed renovating my office building. I grabbed a brick from the trash pile and used it to prop open my office door, first at Central, then at McNeese State, then at East Tennessee State, and, today, it symbolically props open my den door.