A Retirement Celebration was held June 8, 2013, for my friend, mentor and former Voice of America colleague “Uncle” Ted Roberts, who recently stepped down after 42 years of teaching at Howard University here in Washington, D.C. The following is my tribute speech at the ceremony:
“Is everything okay? Is everything alright? I hope so!” This was one of the signature on-air phrases of my friend and longtime Voice of America colleague, “Uncle” Ted Roberts. Two short questions, followed by a short, three word sentence: “I hope so!” The key word for me is that middle one: “hope.”
Whether he was working with young students at Howard, or working with young VOA interns in our office, Uncle Ted was, and is, very much about hope.
One of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, came out almost 20 years ago. And one of my favorite scenes comes near the end of the film.
The character Red reads a letter from his friend and former prison buddy Andy, who writes, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.”
Uncle Ted inspired hope not just in his students and in his colleagues, but also in the millions of VOA listeners who tuned in to his popular Nightline Africa radio broadcast on the weekend. This show, with Uncle Ted behind the microphone, was very much about hope, and it was very much a communal experience.
Ted founded his Nightline Family, a Nightline Africa fan club with thousands of registered members and chapters all over Africa and the Caribbean.
There was an entertainment aspect to the program – Uncle Ted would give riddles and play oldies music: “a blast from my past … music among my souvenirs” is how he described it.
But there was also a hopeful, compassionate, humanitarian element to the show. When I look back on Uncle Ted’s broadcasting career at the Voice of America, I think one of his greatest legacies was creating an award-winning program called Missing Link. Ted was the Main Link in Missing Link– the conduit who brought together African families separated by war, political upheaval or natural disaster. Ted read letters and recorded messages from refugees, who asked for help in locating their loved ones, and he’s credited with reuniting hundreds of families.
Ted’s empathy and generosity was seen on an international scale through programs like this, but also on a smaller scale in our office. I remember Uncle Ted always bringing in food for his colleagues, like doughnuts, chicken and Chinese food. Uncle Ted also kept a big candy jar at his desk – he caught my hand in it a few times!
And just as I took candy from Ted’s jar, I also took sweet nuggets of his style, delivery and programs for use on my own show. Remember, sports fans, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
One of Ted’s many Nightline Africa radio friends, Ateka, wrote the following after hearing of his retirement from VOA in 2009: “Just like other members of the Nightline Family, I love Uncle Ted so much. It was his baritone voice, his professionalism, his warm sense of humor and passion for his work that kept me and other members of his Nightline Family hooked to the radio whenever he was on the air. Then, whenever he signed off, Ted always had a quote that inspired us.”
When you sign off by inspiring someone, you leave them with hope. And so, Uncle Ted, thank you for the inspiration, and thank you for the hope.