Kathleen Roberts, a former president of the MTA who dedicated her life to teaching, unionism and volunteering, has died at the age of 103.
Roberts was born Kathleen Ryan in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on Sept. 14, 1914, and she was raised in Wellesley. She decided she wanted to become a teacher when she was still a child, and she would often tutor neighborhood children who were struggling with their homework.
She received her bachelor’s degree in education from Framingham State College in 1937 and a master’s degree in education from Boston University in 1954.
Her first professional teaching job began soon after her graduation from Framingham State, during the Great Depression. Roberts was the only teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Milton, Vermont, where she taught all eight grades and was paid $14 a week.
Almost all of Roberts’ close to five decades of service as a teacher and teaching principal were in Raynham and Dartmouth, where she served her local associations in several capacities, including as president and vice president.
Roberts was elected MTA president in 1971, when the association had 46,000 members.
After her term as MTA president, Roberts was elected to the National Education Association’s Board of Directors.
During and after her tenure as the leader of the MTA, Roberts mentored countless women and minority educators who had not yet found their political voice.
Louise Gaskins, a longtime MTA activist who served as the association’s first minority NEA director in the mid-1970s, said she will never forget how touched she was that Roberts reached out to her to become more active in the association. “She just wanted to include you in everything,” Gaskins said of Roberts. “I had a lot of respect for her, and I still do.”
Roberts credited the MTA with helping her find her own political voice. “The MTA taught me to stand up on my own two feet,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t think I could do it. But I did.”
“The MTA taught me to stand up on my own two feet. At the time, I didn’t think I could do it. But I did.”Former MTA President Kathleen Roberts
Roberts was married and widowed twice. Her first husband, James C. Comiskey, was head of the business department at New Bedford High School. Her second husband, Sydney Cleland Roberts, was head of the social studies department at Lawrence High School in Falmouth.
After retiring from full-time teaching in 1984, Roberts continued to serve the education profession in many capacities in the MTA and the NEA.
She served as a Massachusetts delegate to the annual NEA Representative Assembly for more than 60 years, beginning in 1950, and on several boards and committees at the NEA.
Roberts was part of a group that organized NEA-Retired in 1983. She said she acted because she wanted more unionism for retired teachers at the national level.
“We organized and contacted every retired teacher who might be interested in helping,” Roberts said. She was honored with the NEA-Retired Distinguished Service award in 2003.
Roberts was active in MTA Retired for many years. Until earlier this year, Roberts was a co-chair of the MTA Retired Members Committee.
At the MTA, Roberts’ name became synonymous with persistence, dedication and a spirit of volunteerism.
Roberts received an MTA Human and Civil Rights Award in 1992, and in 2010, the MTA Human Relations Committee renamed the award in her honor. The award recognizes individuals or organizations that exemplify the volunteerism and leadership that characterized Roberts’ selfless contributions through political action, community organizing and mentoring.
In 2013, she was asked what advice she could give to educators just entering the profession.
“Get right in there,” she said. “Participate right away. Learn what you can do to help your organization, because what helps them will help you, too. And you will meet some wonderful, wonderful people.”
In 2014, at the 75th MTA Annual Meeting of Delegates that Roberts attended, she received the association’s Friend of Education award along with Gaskins and another fellow activist, former MTA President Mary Gilmore.
Even though Roberts was close to 100 years old at the time, she was still volunteering dozens of hours a week in her community — at the senior center, in the food pantry, and in the local schools, where she would don her Cat in the Hat costume and read to schoolchildren in honor of Read Across America Day.
Over the years, Roberts had served as chair of the Raynham Council on Aging, as a trustee of the Raynham Public Library, on Raynham’s Association of Volunteers in Education and as founder and member of the Raynham Food Basket, which provides supplemental food assistance for the needy.
A history buff, she also served as president of the Raynham Historical Society. In the mid-1950s, she wrote “Secrets of Old Dartmouth,” a history of her native town. The book was used to teach history in the Dartmouth Public schools for decades.
In 2012, she received the Home Instead outstanding senior volunteer award for Massachusetts at the Raynham Senior Center.
Roberts told reporters at the event, “In my family we all believed, and my mother believed strongly, that you give back to your community, you give back for all the wonderful things that you get. You share it with others.”