Jackson County mourns the loss of another community icon with the Saturday death of 89-year-old Jim Roberts.
His name conjures memories of a man passionate about his causes, devoted to the common good, with an enthusiasm that was contagious.
He believed fiercely in Jackson Hospital as one of the community’s greatest assets, for instance, friends say. He served on the Jackson Hospital Board of Trustees (1971-1976), but his devotion to it began well before that time and remained strong throughout his life.
Jackson Hospital Foundation Executive Director Jill Miller said his interest in and support of the hospital never wavered.
“When we remodeled a few years ago, he was very supportive of everything we were doing, and was impressed at how it had grown and improved. He loved this hospital and he was always sure to compliment us on the good things we were doing.”
Miller said Roberts also had a sharp eye for the details. When he’d noticed that a picture of a longtime hospital supporter was fading as it hung on a hospital wall, he went to Miller and pointed that out. She agreed that it needed to be refreshed and got that done. She earned Roberts praise for taking that action.
And he wasn’t just the hospital’s cheerleader; his belief in the institution was evident in his personal life as well – Jackson Hospital was his go-to place for health care. He made sure to let his caregiving teams there know how much they meant to him.
“He knew the value of acknowledgement and he always expressed his appreciation of the care he received here,” Miller said. “I’m going to miss him so much. We went to church together, and to know him was to love him. He was just respected by everyone that knew him. He was a pillar of the community and he will be missed by so many.”
He often made donations to the Foundation in honor of friends who had passed away, and the Foundation is one of the entities his family suggests as a donation point for those wishing to honor him now. The Foundation also has a remembrance page where notes about Roberts can be shared.
The hospital was just one of the entities, and Miller was just one of the many people, that benefited from his support.
The pastor of Roberts’ beloved United Methodist Church of Marianna, the Rev. Nathan Atwood talked about his encouraging nature.
“He had such a big heart, a big personality, he was involved in so many things, and he helped connect people,” Atwood said. “I guess everybody knows about his involvement in Rotary and the Coffee Club, and he was in church every Sunday and in our Wednesday morning study group. He always made time to express it when he enjoyed a sermon and that was very meaningful to me on a personal level. He had the gift of encouragement.
“He also did a lot of important and helpful things that nobody saw,” Atwood continued. “He’d send me an e-mail at least once a week, letting me know there was a need for prayer in someone’s life, and he had a way of using his vast network of relationships as a way of creatively making people’s lives better.
“His passing is going to leave such a void in the fabric of our life as a community. He had his hands in everything, and made a lot of things happen that really made a difference in people’s lives.”
“There’s another thing,” Atwood said. “His service in the church went way beyond the local. He led the United Methodist Committee on Location and Building in our area, for decades…he used his business smarts to help people, and he was a ‘people first’ businessman. He had a very deep and broad network of connections that he used to make the world a better place. He was a very special guy.”
Friend Jim Hart remembers well the early days of his getting to know Roberts and all the treasured ensuing years of their association and friendship.
“I’ve known Jim Roberts from his early arrival in Jackson County in 1956,” Hart said. “He was the general manager and district manager for Ralston Purina animal food, the world class leader, the gold standard for commercially produced animal feed at the time. Initially my association with him was as a fellow member of the JayCees of Marianna. It was a key organization here at the time, and he was extremely animated – he got very excited about projects and he provided a source of enthusiasm for everything he volunteered for. He fed energy into everything and it fueled things many, many times. Back in those days, the JayCees were responsible for taking care of (the) opening of and for taking care of Blue Springs, and the club sponsored the first Junior Miss contest in Marianna. He and I and Jim Harkins were involved in that, and the winner (Ellen Whigham) went on to win the state title and represent Florida in the nationals,” Hart recalled. “The JayCees was the most important and powerful force here for getting things done, and Jim was one of the most important and powerful forces within it, for his sheer enthusiasm and commitment. He was also a force in the American Red Cross, the Marianna Rotary Club, and other civic organizations.”
Their friendship went even deeper than shared civic responsibilities. Hart’s career had eventually taken him out of the area. But when he returned in retirement 21 years later, they picked back up and added a new social connection as well, through a Friday night ritual that lasted for many years.
Jim Roberts and his wife Polly, Jim Hart and his wife Patty, Tom Sansom and his wife Juanita, Jimmy and Toolie Harkins, along with Bill Hopkins and Jim Wise and their spouses, would meet every Friday night, rotating the home in which they would spend their evening of dining and visiting together. The host couple would cook or choose a restaurant. This tradition of bonding went on for many years. Politics, social issues and community welfare were frequent topics of their lively conversations, Hart said. Often these gatherings would lead to shared support of some community cause they all believed in.
“We had a mutual interest in doing good for the community,” Hart said. “That was the tie that bound us.”
He said he also admired Roberts for his consistent and proud acknowledgement of his wife’s role in his successes. “Over all the years that I knew and associated with Jim Roberts, he was the consummate gentleman at all times and highly respectful of Polly’s role in his success with his company,” Hart said. “He was a realtor, and before that, he had a partnership in the Pontiac, Olds, GM dealership, which he sold to Bill Hopkins. He was a keen business person and you admired that about him, but he was beyond that the kind of person whose friendship you not only valued for the interaction but because of his high ethical standards and his genuine concern for people.”
Roberts’ care for others, and his clear adoration of his wife, were also noted by local NAACP chapter President Ronstance Pittman.
She and Roberts first became acquainted at the gym where they both took exercise. She said that as they got to know each other, Roberts would almost always call her aside at some point to chat and often spoke admiringly of her efforts on behalf of the community.
“He was very encouraging to me,” Pittman said. “He’d call me to the side and we’d chat about issues that were going on in the community. He would tell me to continue to work for and look out for the community and that he was proud of what I was doing. He was very concerned in later years about the population of the county dwindling, and he would often encourage me to try and help him in this project he thought would help—trying to establish the area as a real hub for the retirement-age market. I think he had more faith in me than I had in myself. He was always after me to ‘just think about it, just think about it.’ He told me how smart I was, how important I was to the community, and that meant a lot coming from him.”
Pittman also recalled another aspect of their many conversations. When they first met, she was single. Roberts would often inquire as to whether she was dating someone, and when he found out recently she’d found her life mate and married, he wanted to meet her spouse, Roger. ”He was so excited and ready to meet Roger,” Pittman said. “When they did meet, I think the first thing he said to Roger was this: ‘You married way above your head, just like me.’ He was very proud of his wife and he made me feel special in saying that. He would tell Roger that more than once—‘You married up, just like me,’ he’d say, teasing Roger when they crossed paths. It made me laugh; it made me feel good. I remember one of the last encounters we had after I’d spoken to the Rotary during Black History Month in February. I’d talked about my experiences growing up, and how I value the friends that maybe don’t look like me but with whom I share common hopes and causes. He came up and said ‘that was a great message.’ He was very encouraging, and I will definitely miss him. We had many conversations that I value.”
Roberts remained a very active member of society until his death, with an energy that belied his age. He and his wife of 67 years could be counted on at almost every meeting of the Chipola Regional Arts Association, for instance, of which they were long-time members and supporters.
Friends took to Facebook in sharing their feelings about Roberts as news of his death spread in the community.
Edith Whidden wrote this: “Jim was always the most supportive man. He has so many outstanding qualities and will be missed by so many in the community and the church. Can't imagine looking out over the congregation and not seeing he and Polly. Love you, Polly. My heart goes out to you. God's peace and comfort.”
Roy Baker said: “Truly an iconic business leader whose marks will live on through those he has mentored, especially his children and their spouses. I will always remember his sense of humor and the fact that he never met a stranger, just a new friend.”
Mickey Gilmore wrote: “Jim Roberts was good man. He voiced his opinions to our community to help it. He was a father to two of my dearest friends, and Cindy his daughter. Jim became a personal friend and mentor to me. Polly and Jim brighten any room they entered and always acknowledged everyone. This community has lost a great leader, but has left two of his boys to lead in his footsteps. I will miss our messaging and political talks. God will bless the family and receive a great guy. God Bless.”
Those comments were posted on the James and Sikes Funeral Home Facebook page, which can be visited to see more remembrances of this community icon.
His funeral was to be held at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 9, at United Methodist Church of Marianna, with interment in Pinecrest Memorial Gardens. Visitation was set for 5-7 p.m. Monday, July 8, in the Wesley Center of the church.