By Diane Ballard
In the 8 days before Dave Roberts came to work for the UT alumni office in 1966, he resigned his job in Nashville, got married, enjoyed a [brief] honeymoon, and moved to Knoxville. As he recalls the frenetic onset of his 42-year career, he dismisses any prescience that UT would occupy nearly all his working life.
“My long-term vision was to finish the first day of work!” he laughs.
On May 23, 2008, 42 years to the day since he came into UT’s employ, he departed it. Allowing for a brief detour to work at two other Tennessee colleges, he still marked 37 years with UT on his final tally.
Roberts (Knoxville ’65) estimates he logged more than a million miles and as many as 6,000 events in his career with the UT Alumni Association. Beginning as an assistant director of alumni affairs in Knoxville, he moved up to director of annual giving and then went to Memphis, where he was director of alumni affairs at the UT Health Science Center. He was director of development at the University of Memphis and a vice-president at Maryville College from 1975 to 1980, when he rejoined UT as senior associate vice-president and executive director of the UT Alumni Association. The job was a perfect fit for the gregarious Chattanooga native—and for his wife, Kate, who, though she may have traveled fewer miles than her husband, made her own favorable impression on legions of alumni friends. Last year, Dave Roberts transitioned to the role of special project assistant, gradually stepping back from what was less a job than a way of life.
Countless nights and weekends found him at meetings and events as disparate as a Volunteer football game and an alumni chapter meeting in Decatur County. Wherever he went—and he went many places—he was always on time, notes Lynne Fain, a former president of the Alumni Association.
“Alumni leaders soon learned about ‘Dave Roberts Time,’ ” Fain says. “He was always the first one there, and the meeting started on time.
“Dave was fun to travel with,” she continues. “Before we had Mapquest, he could tell you the quickest way from point A to point B in the state of Tennessee. Not only had he already been there, he also knew someone from there!”
The function of university alumni staff is “friend raising,” the low-key, no-pressure relationship-building that maintains grass-roots support and a steady current of gifts for the institution. Roberts excelled at it, rallying the UT faithful at dinners and pep rallies, accompanying them on alumni association trips abroad, and celebrating together when athletic teams triumphed.
But things didn’t always go as planned. Roberts recalls a 2004 incident when Dr. John Petersen was new to the job of UT president.
“He and Mrs. Petersen and I were to fly to West Tennessee on an August Saturday to attend a meeting of the UT Martin Alumni Council. The meeting was to be held at Paris Landing State Park, and I was told by the Martin staff that a UT car would be left for us at the airport—and it was, with one small detail omitted. We flew to the Paris airport. The car was left at the Union City airport, fifty miles to the west. We scrambled to get to the meeting. Suffice it to say, I was fortunate my ‘retirement’ didn’t occur that day!”
By all measures, Roberts was an effective force with the alumni association. During his time as executive director, annual giving grew from less than $2 million a year to more than $26 million, and attendance at alumni events increased from 45,000 a year to more than 96,000.
The landscape has changed during his career, Roberts says.
“The competition for volunteer time has become keen in the past forty years with the number of charitable causes increasing from a hundred thousand in 1970 to more than half a million today. It’s a tribute to the university that alumni make support of their alma mater a priority.”
The university owes Roberts a tribute, says the alumni association president, Debbie Ingram.
“I can’t say enough about Dave’s contributions. He was totally devoted to this association and did so much to make it a top-notch organization that always supports the university.”
Being accustomed to an active and sociable existence, Roberts is keeping a similar pace in retirement. Trips to Colorado, Germany, Italy, and Scotland dot his calendar, and on the horizon he sees hiking, golfing, reading, more travel, and maybe even a part-time job.
Working for UT has been a blast, he says.
“I feel very ready to retire and take a great deal of pride both in being a graduate [the first college graduate in my family] of UT and in association accomplishments. I’ve enjoyed an unbelievably rewarding career—this after describing the job I was taking at UT to my mother and being asked, ‘Son, is that a full-time job?’ ”