Janet S. Roberts
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Janet S. Roberts, who for more than four decades was an influential and prescient figure in Boulder politics and government, died on November 1 of congestive heart failure. She was 89.

In a biographical form she filled out late in life, Roberts listed her occupation as “community volunteer.” This modest self-assessment belied her real contributions to the town that had been her home since 1948. Between 1960 and 1977, she served for thirteen years on the Boulder City Council, becoming on her first election only the fourth woman in the town’s history to occupy that post. From 1975 to 1977 she was also Boulder’s deputy mayor. In 1959, she was one of the founders of PLAN-Boulder, the organization that devised the Blue Line Amendment to counteract the threat of rampant real estate development. When ratified by voters, the Blue Line preserved the mountain backdrop that is one of Boulder’s proudest environmental legacies today.

Later, as a councilwoman, Roberts was instrumental in creating the Pearl Street Mall, in the face of dire predictions that closing Boulder’s central thoroughfare to vehicle traffic would toll the death knell for downtown business. In 1966 and 1968, she ran as a Democrat for representative in the Colorado legislature, only to be defeated in elections that amounted to statewide Republican landslides. And in 1974, she survived what for her was the darkest episode in her political career. That year, she voted with the majority of the City Council to pass what it thought to be an innocuous law prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals. The measure unleashed a storm of protest and hate mail, and led to the only successful recall election in the town’s history. The fellow councilman whom Roberts later referred to as “our link to the counterculture” was thrown out of office; the African-American mayor saved his job by the narrowest of margins; and Roberts herself was protected by a technicality—the proviso that she had not yet served enough of her current term to be subject to a recall election. She went on to finish the last three years of her term in what is now regarded as one of Boulder’s history-making Councils.

Janet Roberts (née Smock) was born on May 21, 1918, in Lakewood, New Jersey. The first person in her family to go to college, she attended Wheaton, an all-women’s institution in Norton, Massachusetts, where she majored in English, with minors in French and German. Upon graduating in 1939, she had ambitions to be a professional writer. That year, however, she met a first-year Harvard graduate student on a blind date arranged by his mother (they played ping-pong in the parlor of his family home). The graduate student, Walter Orr Roberts, was pursuing a Ph. D. in astrophysics. The two were married in June 1940, whereupon, in lieu of a honeymoon, they immediately set out for Colorado in a 1934 Graham Paige sedan Roberts had bought for $150. Crammed into the auto were the parts of the first coronagraph (a telescope that artificially eclipses the sun) ever to be deployed in the Western Hemisphere.

In a newly built house in the molybdenum mining town of Climax, at 11,500 feet—at the time it was the highest year-round domicile in the United States—the couple set up home, as Walter Roberts labored in an observatory adjoining the house to unlock the secrets of the sun’s coronal atmosphere. The site had been chosen by Roberts’s Harvard mentor because high altitude guaranteed the best possible “seeing.” For seven years, the couple lived in Climax, during which time Janet gave birth to two sons and a daughter. In 1948, the family moved to Boulder, so that Walter Roberts could expand the High Altitude Observatory. Three years later, Janet gave birth to a third son. In 1960, Walter accepted the position of founding director of what has since become the world-renowned National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the condition that it be merged with the HAO.

During her first eight years of married life, Janet had filled the roles of housewife, mother, and occasional assistant in the observatory. In Boulder, however, she joined the League of Women Voters, which kindled her nascent interest in local politics. By 1956, she had become a member of the City Planning Board, a post she resigned when she was elected to the Council.

During the next forty years, in addition to her City Council terms, she served on numerous commissions, including the Colorado Commission on the Status of Women and the Advisory Council of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Eventually she served on the boards of Boulder County Hospice, Boulder Community Hospital, Boulder County Mental Health Center, and other organizations. She received numerous awards, including the Camera’s Pacesetter Award in 1988.

In an interview with this newspaper in 2007, again with characteristic modesty, she insisted, “I was never the leader of a movement . . . . Perhaps my greatest overall contribution was the consistency of my involvement.” Yet Roberts could allow that perhaps “I became the ‘institutional memory’ of city government.” In her late 80s, she stayed fully abreast of city politics, and could be bluntly critical of what she considered wrong turns. In the same Camera interview, she remarked, “I am not comfortable with the direction in which the present City Council seems to be moving. Most of its members have no real dedication to environmental preservation.”

All her life Roberts retained the passionate interest in literature and languages that was instilled in her at Wheaton. In her 70s, she learned Russian so that she could converse with émigrés who had settled in Boulder. Like Emily Dickinson, she wrote poems that she never showed to anyone else, keeping them in her bureau drawer or between the leaves of her favorite anthologies of verse. Well into her 80s, she could quote from memory long passages from Frost, Swinburne, Millay, MacLeish, Housman, Tennyson, Keats, and other poets.

Roberts’s clarity of intelligence, empathic concern for others, absence of egotism, and gifts as a mediator made her a beloved friend to many in the larger Boulder community. Despite her strong stances as a liberal, an environmentalist, and a feminist, she made few enemies.

Walter Roberts died in 1990. Janet and Walter’s daughter Jennifer Nobles died in 2004. Janet was preceded in death by her brother, Arthur Smock. She is survived by three sons and their wives, David and Sharon Roberts, Alan and June Roberts, Jonathan Roberts and Elaine Smith; by Jennifer’s husband Charles Nobles; by her grandson Scott McCarthy and great-grandchildren Johnna, Taryn, and Ethan; by her granddaughter Kimberly McKeen and great-grandchildren Olivia and Lauren; and by her step-granddaughter Honey Taheri and step-great-grandchildren Sean and Ryan.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 PM on Saturday, December 15, in the lobby of the National Center for Atmospheric Research on the mesa. For directions or further details, please see http://web.mac.com/jroberts/JSR. In lieu of flowers, those who wish to honor Janet Roberts are asked to make contributions in her name to the Emergency Family Assistance Association (900 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, CO 80302) or the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (PO Box 270444, Louisville CO 80027).
Published in Daily Camera from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11, 2007.
Memories & Condolences
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6 entries
November 29, 2007
What a beautiful and impressive tribute story about Janet, but still not as beautiful and impressive as Janet in person. What a privilege to have known her and worked with her. Janet and Walt opened their house for my wedding in 1966, just as they opened their hearts to a variety of friends. Our lives are all richer for Janet's dedicated service.
Judy Henning
November 29, 2007
We are all better for having known and worked with you over the years. Your dedication to Boulder will long be remembered
Bob & Diane Greenlee
November 21, 2007
Heartfelt condolences to the family from an employee at NCAR (1974-79) who was privileged to know both Walt and Janet.
Merry Maisel
November 14, 2007
I was an employee of NCAR FROM 1965 TO 1993, and it was my privilege to know both your mother and father. I will be out of town at the time of the memorial service, please know I offer my most sincere condolence. My husband and I are life long Boulder residents and appreciate all Janet contributed to the community.
Betty and Albert Bloom
November 10, 2007
I lived in Boulder for many years and worked for the City and had the privilege of observing Janet and working with and for her. I appreciate the beautiful piece written about her and her life. I hope my few words add a bit to her heritage: Janet Roberts commanded honor and respect because of her quiet and assuring competence and her even-tempered disposition. Janet's humanity added to Boulder as a community, both during her all-too temporary stay there, and for the future.
Walter Wagenhals
November 5, 2007
Your kindness to my father when you were both on the City Council is not forgotten. You will be remembered as a great mom. Fond aloha to your children.
Carolyn Pudlik Segawa
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