MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The life he leads after June 30 and the life he has led for the last 33 years will likely be significantly different.
For the last 28 years, and 33 years overall, Bob Roberts has served as WVU’s Campus Police Chief, recently recognized as the Chief of the Year by the National Association of Campus Safety Administrators.
His retirement at the end of June closes the book on a long career, one far longer than your average police chief.
“There’s a couple of things that I probably bring to this job that if I were in another position wouldn’t be so helpful, but it’s empathy and compassion,” Roberts told WAJR-Morgantown. “I think those two things are important, because these are young people in their formative years.”
“You kind of have to put yourself back in their shoes and understand and try to understand,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you need to be sympathetic, but you do need to have empathy in this job.”
His position as WVU’s top safety official in what was once the understaffed “security department” has given him access to musicians he never thought he’d meet, public speakers he could learn from, and three U.S. Presidents.
“No doubt, all three of them were a little bit of a pain,” he said, laughing.
“[They’re] great people I would have never gotten to meet had I not been here in this job,” Roberts said. “That’s what I’ve told other people — I was a young kid growing up in the Appalachian Mountains. I had one of two choices: go to the coal mine or go to the military.”
So the southwest Virginia native joined the Air Force, stationed in North Dakota in 1976. In 1980, he arrived in Morgantown to little fanfare.
“When I first drove into Morgantown, I came in on the Star City side,” he said. “And I remember driving down Beechurst. And I thought, ‘Wow. What a dump.'”
That prompted a laugh from Roberts, commenting on how much Morgantown and Monongalia County have changed in the 38 years since he first made the pilgramage up old Route 19 to WVU.
“It’s grown a lot.” he said. “And for the better, I think, in a lot of ways.”
In 33 years with the campus police force, Roberts has plenty of memories. Some, like historic sports programs, left him wistful. Others, like post-football game rioting, excessive student partying in the old Sunnyside neighborhood, and even some student deaths, he might as soon forget.
“I’ll miss the people,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ll miss the 3 a.m. phone calls, and some of those things that come with it. I’ve had a good run here. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a great community.”
Still, as student, officer, and then a significantly longer period as Chief, Roberts said it’s the good that stands out more than anything else.
“I remember the tragedies, of course,” he said. “Those stick with you, but I really truly remember the good things. I can remember the two football seasons where we were undefeated, and the Virginia Tech rush on the field. I remember a lot of those.”
In William Chedester, who officially took command Friday, Roberts sees a department veteran with smarts, a good education, and the right make-up for the job.
That doesn’t mean, Roberts said, that there isn’t room to grow.
“Figuring out what your philosophy is going to be, what your road map is going to be, what trip are you going to take this department on?” he said. “They’ve followed me for the past 33 years, and it’s been a long, sometimes bumpy trip and the kids asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ But it’s been a good trip.”
“What he needs to do is now figure out where he wants to go and then get everyone on board for the trip.”
Most importantly, at a unique job like this and at a University with thousands of students so far from home, Roberts said the fundamental personality trait of a good campus chief is compassion.
“You have to have compassion because the parents are a long ways off,” he said. “They’re trusting us to do the right thing. It’s just a different environment.”
One doesn’t stay in the same place for nearly four decades without developing an affinity for the place, and Roberts said he’s no different.
“I don’t think people really understand and appreciate the things that West Virginia University brings to this community and this area,” he said. “If it weren’t for Ruby (Memorial) Hospital, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today.”
“They’ve probably kept me alive a couple of times, so I thank them greatly for that.”
Roberts said he had one last goal to accomplish, but it won’t require him to answer any more 3 a.m. phone calls.
“I’ll always be a piece of WVU,” he said.
He quickly added: “I hope.”