Bill Roberts, former editorial page editor for The Durango Herald, died on Thursday after he fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was 73 years old.
Colleagues and family remembered him as a man with an “extraordinary” dry and nuanced sense of humor he expertly wielded in provocative editorials, which were sure to stir up conversation among residents of Durango.
Cathy Roberts, Bill’s wife, said he used to say, “If you’ve been around Durango for very long, I’ve either (ticked) you off by writing an opinion piece that you didn’t agree with, or I burnt your steak or I spilled your drink on you.”
Bill had strong personal beliefs, but his views transcended partisan lines and he didn’t adhere to any strict ideology, Cathy said.
He had a burning desire to understand other people’s thoughts on issues, even when he fiercely disagreed with someone’s take on one thing or another.
Although he might have opposed someone else’s take on one subject, he was well aware they’d likely be aligned on the next one, Cathy said.
In the days when editorial submissions were still delivered in print by hand, Bill took time to sit with, talk to and understand the people who submitted their opinions. No matter what his own thoughts were, those opinions would always be well represented in his work, she said.
“He was a thoughtful observer of events and people and wrote in a clear and persuasive, understated way,” Ballantine Communications Board Chairman Richard Ballantine said on Saturday. “He always looked for something unique. And letter writers have told me that Bill took time with their submittals. His view of goings on in La Plata County and the world will be missed.”
Bill was born on June 1, 1950, to Jean and William Roberts Jr. in Pittsburgh. He and Cathy married in 1996 and remained so for 27 years until his death on Thursday.
Cathy met Bill after she was hired to be the Herald’s secretary, her first job after moving to Durango, she said. Bill was the editorial page editor then.
Judith Reynolds, Herald editorial cartoonist and a friend of Bill, who hired her in 1995, said it was easy to see Cathy and Bill were in love.
“The blooming romance was pretty obvious at the Herald,” she said. “They were both working in parallel, and they clearly, clearly loved each other. And I was more than honored to be invited to their wedding.”
Cathy said on Saturday that “his intellect and his kindness were what drew me to him.”
Bill valued public discourse and exchange and the facilitating role the newspaper played in that, particularly in the opinion pages, and took great care of letters submitted to the Herald, she said.
He had a wicked memory and could recall obscure facts off the top of his head, such as the name of the secret police in Haiti (the Tontons Macoutes).
Even after his retirement in 2017, Roberts read several newspapers daily. At 70 years old, he decided to act on his long-held passion for music and take up piano lessons. It was challenging, but it brought him joy, his wife said.
“He loved it,” Cathy said. “He’s always been a music lover but he wanted to learn to read music and play the piano. So it did kind of enhance his appreciation of music and it was a struggle. He worked hard at it.”
Reynolds said Bill told her he wanted to make productive use of his retirement and that’s why he took up the piano.
“He was so open minded and so open to new things and also not taking himself terribly seriously,” she said. “Really, his willingness to be a beginner at something impressed me.”
Mika Inouye, a respected chamber musician, pianist and harpsichordist chair in town, gave Bill piano lessons, she said.
Cathy said Bill was also a proud glider pilot, and flying was a “key part of his identity.”
He flew commercially and eventually bought his own glider and would fly it in the Animas Valley. He was drawn to flying because of the challenge of training and obtaining his pilot license. It was about the mastery of flying, she said.
In a Herald editorial published Jan. 12, 2017, announcing his imminent retirement, Roberts said the Durango newspaper “represents the second half of my working life.”
“Between expressing opinions in editorials and columns, editing letters, burning steaks and spilling coffee, I have had the opportunity to offend just about everyone around here. I hope I haven’t too badly – or at least not too recently,” he said.
He closed that piece by saying, “What I am sure of is that because of the Ballantines’ willingness to take a chance on me, I have been able to get to know this community and its people in depth and in a way few can. It has been an honor.”
Cathy said Bill happened upon the Herald after his co-owned restaurant business Sweeney’s at Purgatory went under.
Bill Roberts is survived by Cathy; their son Ian Junkermann and his wife Hannah; his daughter Jordan Anderson and her husband Ethan; his and Cathy’s grandchildren Elisha and Grace; Anne Averyt and her husband Dennis; Barbara Roberts and her husband Russ Sherrie.
Services for Roberts are scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at the First Presbyterian Church of Durango, 1159 East Third Ave.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the late Bill Roberts’ sisters, Anne Averyt and Barbara Roberts, as sisters-in-law. They are his sisters, not in-laws.