Wallace Irwin Roberts, of Williamstown, Vermont, passed away at age 77 on July 22 at the Vermont Respite House, Colchester VT after a brief illness. Wally was born July 2, 1941 in Philadelphia, PA to William Wallace Roberts and Polly Roberts. Wally attended Dartmouth College where he graduated magna cum laude with B.A. in European History. He also received his M.S. in Community Economic Development from Southern New Hampshire University.
In 1964, Wally’s life-long passion to advocate for civil rights and social justice was born. He volunteered for the Mississippi Freedom Summer based in Shaw, Mississippi where he organized a Freedom School for literacy and voter registration for Black citizens. His experience in Mississippi helped shape his career as an activist, investigative researcher, journalist and community organizer.
For years, Wally shared his experience in Mississippi through presentations to middle school students at Vermont’s Thetford Academy, keeping alive the historical record of civil rights in America and educating young people regarding injustice and limited opportunities for minorities in this country. Thank you letters from Thetford Academy students testify to the impact of his words. After hearing that Wally, along with Shaw residents and fellow volunteers were jailed in the summer of '64 for a peaceful protest outside the courthouse, one student commented that he was a hero. Another wrote, “I thought it was amazing when you said, ‘I am not the hero, but the black people who live it are the real heroes and heroines.’”
Late 1964 marked the beginning of Wally’s career in journalism. He spent 11 years as a fulltime journalist for various publications before going freelance. Four of those years he spent as a reporter for the Providence Journal. The paper nominated Wally for a Pulitzer Prize for his article exposing a deceptive public relations campaign by privately owned utilities in New England, aimed at defeating two public power projects. His work also included investigative reporting on controversial issues in education (Saturday Review, The Washington Post), civil rights, energy issues(The Nation, The American Prospect, The Times Argus), politics (The Village Voice, The Washington Monthly), nursing home care nationwide and antiquated Medicaid policies relating to minority and low-income communities (The Crisis Magazine, New American Media), and housing for low-income people (The Times Argus).
In 1971, at WBAI-FM in New York City, Wally was executive producer of a program, “The Television Industry,” that won the Edwin F. Armstrong Award for best radio documentary. In 1985, he led a team of reporters for the North Shore (Mass.) Weeklies, which won an award for breaking the news that the owner of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station was to be forced into bankruptcy because of the project’s construction cost overruns.
From the late 1990s to 2003 when the electric power industry was being deregulated throughout the U.S., Wally wrote a series of magazine and newspaper articles exposing the questionable economic and environmental aspects of deregulations. He received an award from the Fund for Investigative Journalism for being the first reporter to show how prices in the wholesale electricity market could be manipulated by producers and traders, a claim later proven true in several federal court cases.
As an organizer, Wally was the editor of The Citizen Advocate, published by Massachusetts Fair Share, a statewide citizen action organization. For 10 years he worked as a developer of housing for low income families. An experienced grantwriter, he raised funds for many organizations, including an anti-poverty agency, a senior citizen center, and a homeless shelter for youth. Living in Vermont since the 1970s Wally was active in the Central Vermont Community Land Trust where he made a major contribution as project manager to the acquisition and redevelopment of North Branch Apartments, an important redevelopment project in downtown Montpelier. During his time as Executive Director of Common Cause, Vermont, he worked on issues such as campaign finance disclosure, election law, voter registration, and open government.
As Executive Director of the Waterbury Senior Center, Wally became interested in problems surrounding health care for seniors. He helped lay the groundwork for FIRE, Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors, and received grants from FIRE and other organizations to support his research on nursing homes and health care for minorities. In 2013 and 2014 Wally received two major fellowships to investigate Medicaid and other public policies regulating the U.S. nursing home industry—one from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, Washington, D.C., and another from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. With this background, at the end of his life Wallywas writing a book, You Don’t Want to Go There, about the nursing home industry.
Wally was 23 when he went to Mississippi and he was 76 when, in late April of this year, he attended the opening of the Museum of Lynching and Slavery in Montgomery, Alabama. These events were bookends to his enduringcommitment to equal justice for minorities, the elderly, and the less privileged in the United States.As one friend said of him, “Wally probably had a large footprint in life, just was quiet about it.”
Wally is survived by his son, Tyler Tillinghast Roberts, of Grinnell, IA,and daughter, Amy Montgomery Roberts of Scarborough, ME; his step-children, Ornan McLean of Vergennes, VT, and Sienna McLean LoGreco of Santa Monica, CA; his sister, Gail R. Scott of Portland ME; and grandchildren, Madeleine Roberts, Emma Roberts, William Roberts, Ellanora LoGreco, Francesca LoGreco; and his sister-in-law, Margaret Roman of Topsham ME. Wally was predeceased by his son, Alexander Shaw Tillinghast Roberts, who passed away in 1993, his wife, Elizabeth Roman and his stepson, Ulysses M. R. McLean who both passed away in 2016.
In June, when he became ill Wally gave up for adoption his beloved dog, Max, who has since found a new home.
Services will be private and at the convenience of the family.The family invites you share your memories by visiting www.awrfh.com.
Memorial contributions in Wally’s memory may be made to: Conversations Mississippi a project aimed at archiving documents, photographs, and related material from Freedom Summer, at: Conversations Mississippi c/o Jan Hillegas, P. O. Box 1041, Jackson, MS 39215 Or Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), a program to help freelance journalistswith investigations in the public interest, at: Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE) PO Box 311, Great Barrington, MA 01230 http://www.firenewsroom.org/about-us/what-we-do