He pitched himself as a local guy, born and raised in Tacoma. Product of Curtis High School. Editor of the University of Washington Daily who went on to write for publications from Oregon to New York state.
And then, also as part of his 1987 application to become a local columnist for The News Tribune, C.R. Roberts wrote this:
“It is my goal to write the best column, three times a week, that I can. It is my goal to render a strong, singular, entertaining and informative voice for readers of The News Tribune.
“It is my goal to become necessary for readers, to become the feature readers turn to and talk about. It is my goal to represent The News Tribune to the public, to add my face to my voice in schools, before groups and at community events. It is my goal to grow as a writer.
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“My short-term ambition would be to have The News Tribune publish a collection of my columns. I do not necessarily aspire to prizes.”
As I told Roberts on Thursday at his retirement party, he met the mark on all but the last two items. The first was no fault of his own, and the prizes came in spite of his wishes.
The round of applause Thursday after mention of a book told us how much folks appreciated his work. It also illustrated the connection that can form between a journalist and his community after 29 years. Especially a journalist like Roberts.
A search of the TNT archive returns 3,430 pieces authored by him since June of 1987. After years as a columnist, he went on to be a business writer.
Ask him what the highlights have been. “Meeting people, writing about people,” he said.
He told me about a great story tip he got once from a taxi driver about a man, well into his 80s, who was blind and lived alone. The man once sang at the Metropolitan Opera and once heard Caruso. When Roberts asked him to sing, he did so in a deep and profound tenor, from “Il Pagliaccio.” Oh, and he was armed with a handgun stuck in his waistband.
“A blind guy, armed, singing opera on a hot day in a small and barely furnished living room in Salishan,” Roberts shared. “What more could a reporter ask for?”
His story in April about the closing of a local store included this passage that transported readers there alongside him and conveyed what a loss its closing was to the neighborhood:
“Twelve times in one hour Friday morning, customers ask owner Mark Wenner when he’ll finally close the doors at the Browns Point Ace Hardware.
“The answer: May. Sometime probably by late May.
“Billie, the store shih tzu, settles into a slice of sunshine falling onto the welcome mat just inside the front door.
“Customers have learned to step around the dog.
“When she heard the news about the closure, Browns Point customer Judy Findley said, “I went home and cried.”
TNT photographer Drew Perine worked many assignments with Roberts over the years. “One thing I always appreciated was his ability to make everyone feel at ease, from a CEO to a janitor, by showing them respect, courtesy and understanding.”
Roberts covered the banking industry during its latest crisis and reported on Tacoma growth, the advent of cannabis, gaming and investment strategies. He won a regional SPJ award in 2013 for his coverage of funding for construction of the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.
He was the last person to sit down at the many community luncheons we attended together; he was too busy schmoozing with sources and friends.
His continued use of big words has not been met with a sanguine response from editors. (Yes, Roberts wrote that line.)
Fellow reporter Sean Robinson told him Friday how he’d miss being able to throw out a Shakespeare quote and get a quote in response from someone who knew the words.
“Nothing ever threw him off,” said his editor, Debbie Cockrell. “He could pivot from one assignment to the next in the bat of an eye.
“It was no small feat to become his supervisor, and I was not sure how well we’d get along initially. He turned out to have a wicked sense of humor and was one of the kindest reporters I’ve ever worked with.”
Outside of work, Roberts served for 20 years as an administrator at a summer camp for children with cancer. His eyes dance as he talks about his upcoming plans to volunteer both here and abroad.
At his farewell, Roberts thanked those present for their contributions “to what Tacoma is and what Tacoma will become.”
“That’s what I look forward to,” he said.
Thank you, C.R., for so eloquently telling the stories of our community through the rich characters who live among us.