Recollections on Professor John L. Roberts

by W. Brian O'Connor-Jan 2011

John Roberts died in Amherst on May 16, 2010. He came to the Zoology Department 58 years earlier in 1952 and devoted a very productive and memorable 38 years in the Department before retiring in 1990. I describe here his contributions to the department, college and the university, excerpts of my eulogy for John's Memorial Service at the University on September 25, 2010.

John was born in 1922 and grew up in Waukesha WI. He loved Nature and was particularly fascinated with all types of fish, an enduring passion. He started his university education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison but left to enter the Army Signal Corps at the height of WW II. He served as lieutenant in charge of a four-man photo unit. His unit covered pivotal events in the European and Asian theaters, work included in World War II documentaries. After the war, he returned to the University of Wisconsin to complete his BS and MS degrees and then went to UCLA where he completed his PhD. At UCLA he met his wife, Peggy Ross, who was the teaching assistant for the field botany course he took. They moved to Amherst in 1952 and had two children.

It was late in September in 1967-when I first met John. I was a new faculty member in the then Zoology Department and it was the Annual Social Gathering of the department to start the academic year and greet new faculty. This gathering was held at Dr. Fairbairn's house, the Chair, across from the Orchard Hill dorms. I vividly remember John coming over to introduce himself and Peg to me (we not met since he was on sabbatical in Bristol, England when I presented my interview seminar). We chatted about my roots in Vermont and also schooling in the Midwest. We talked about the Department and the University ... his enthusiasm and passion for the Department and the University was infectious. I recall saying to myself-I've come to the right place!! (And obviously I did as I am still here after 43 years).

John was a prolific researcher and received an impressive amount of grant money for his research in the area of Comparative Physiology, particularly the physiology of fishes including thermal adaptation and respiratory and cardiac function in fresh water and marine fish and crabs. He mentored over 20 graduate students and several dozen undergraduates - I was constantly sending him undergraduates and he never turned them down for a place in his lab. He served on numerous editorial boards and grant review committees for his research specialty. He taught courses in Comparative Physiology and also the very popular - Physiology for Athletes -the old Zoology 135 along with several graduate courses. He also taught courses at the MBL in Woods Hole. He authored or co-authored over 60 publications in refereed journals. As I looked over the list of graduate students in his lab I was struck by the fact I could remember almost all of them. The main reason I could recall so many of them - John's lab was a place to have lunch and discuss the events going on in the department and university and many of the grad students attended! John was a true pillar of the Department in his 38 years and served on every departmental committee and served as Interim Chair on at least one occasion. He chaired the PC on numerous occasions along with several other departmental committees.

What I remember most about John is his active involvement, dedication and commitment to Faculty Governance. This is the area for which I can claim John as my mentor - I was becoming involved in the Faculty Senate in the mid to late 70's and John encouraged me - I'm pretty sure that he served on every University Committee and Council that existed including serving on the Rules Committee and two terms as Faculty Delegate to the Board of Trustees of UMass. I always admired his commitment and dedication to Faculty Governance.

John was very active in local Amherst government serving as a Town Meeting member and on several town committees-not as active as Peg but a solid benefactor to the town.

John was a truly dedicated and committed Department, College and University citizen, a devoted proponent of public education. The University, Town and State have a true pillar to remember. I will miss his great sense of humor, always-positive attitude and great smile.