NEAR THE END of my luncheon-interview with Michael V. Roberts, 47, and Steven C. Roberts, 43, in the Tenderloin Room, Akbar Muhammad, the international representative of the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, approached our table. He wanted the Roberts brothers to join him at his table after they had finished.
The Robertses' association with Farrakhan may seem odd at first. They are known for their relatively moderate views (Steven once endorsed Republican John Ashcroft for governor) and their cordial relations with the white power structure here (Chuck Knight's a friend).
But they are businessmen, too, and Farrakhan's Nation of Islam mosque is located in the brothers' Kingsway Center building on North Kingshighway, once a sprawling Sears & Roebuck store.
The two say they also appreciate Farrakhan's emphasis on family and the need for African-American men to be responsible to their wives and children. Michael described how young men are taught rigid discipline at the mosque.
Kingsway Center is just three blocks from the Vernon Avenue house in which Michael and Steven got their early discipline from parents Victor and Delores Roberts. Victor, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 39 years, serves as chief financial officer of Roberts-Roberts & Associates, Inc.; Delores is a retired first-grade teacher.
Michael is married to former schoolteacher Jeanne Gore, and they have four children: 16-year-old twins Michael Jr. and Jeanne; Fallon, 13, and Meaghan, 11.
Steven is married to Dr. Eva Frazer, director of internal medicine for the downtown Barnes Clinic. They have three children: Steven, II, 7; Christian, 5, and Darci, 19 months.
Each Roberts brother has sought the Democratic nomination for St. Louis mayor - Michael in 1989; Steven in 1993. Michael also ran unsuccessfully for aldermanic president in 1983 and 1987. Each has served as a St. Louis alderman.
Each is a lawyer and lives with his family in a house on Lindell Boulevard, facing Forest Park. The brothers are partners in an empire of businesses that runs from owning television stations to managing commercial real estate to the installation of trade-show displays.
They speak proudly of their heritage, which they can trace back four generations to Tennessee. Their ancestors, they say, made holes in the bases of their homes to return the gunfire of Klansmen.
Their quest for success began as their parents struggled to make ends meet.
"They had a catering business at one point and served wealthy, white families," said Michael. "That ignited our entrepreneuring interests."
One client for whom they catered was Lawrence K. Roos, when the former St. Louis County supervisor headed Mound City Bank.
Dressed in conservative suits ("We buy everywhere - from Syms to Neiman Marcus," said Steven), they ordered salads for lunch. At one point, both were distracted from our conversation - Steven checked his pager, Michael exchanged bon mots with another diner - and maitre d' Johnny Psara looked at both of them approvingly and said to me, "They know how to treat waiters. They even make me feel like somebody."
Here's an edited version of the interview:
Berger: Steve, we've talked about your humble beginnings, but now you have an empire. Where does the capital come from? Who is your angel?
Steven Roberts: If you looked at two angels, particularly two guardian angels, I guess you're looking at Victor and Delores Roberts. We believe they have given us the strength, the motivation, and in a sense even the morality, as we have begun to shape our lives.
There is no capital source, everything that we have done has been a struggle. Surprisingly, even today, having two television stations, hoping to build one more in the next six months and maybe two more after that, having a successful real estate business through the old Sears building - even with all of those successful efforts, we still find it difficult to find lending sources in the St. …