Judicial Pioneer Roberts Dies at 88

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), June 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

Judicial Pioneer Roberts Dies at 88


Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Betty Roberts, who as a schoolteacher, state legislator, attorney and judge broke many barriers for women in Oregon, died Saturday at her Portland home of pulmonary fibrosis at age 88.

She chalk ed up several important firsts in her career - first woman on the Oregon Court of Appeals and first woman on the Oregon Supreme Court - but those who knew her say her most important legacy resides in her steadfast efforts to create a meaningful life for herself and her children and to open doors for other women to walk through.

Sharon "Dian" Odell, the oldest of Roberts' two daughters and two sons, said her mother was a stay-at-home mom while her children were young.

"She went back to school at age 30, when I was in fifth grade and she felt I was old enough to babysit for the younger three," Odell recalled. "She went to night school in La Grande to become a teacher - she knew that women at that time could be teachers."

Roberts, born Betty Cantrell in Arkansas City, Kan., grew up in Texas during the Great Depression, and when she was a child her father "was paralyzed by drinking bad booze during Prohibition," Odell said. "The family went from being comfortable middle class to the recipients of Salvation Army food baskets. Because of that memory, my mother supported the Salvation Army all her life."

But the same memory also spurred her determination to be able to support herself financially. While Roberts' mother had taken in washing to try to make ends meet, "my mother knew in the 1950s, because of washing machines, she couldn't do that - and she wouldn't do that," Odell said. "She went to school instead."

After one year of night school at La Grande, the family moved to Portland to support the career of her husband, banker Bill Rice.

"She thought that would be the end of her education right there, but someone told her about a new school called Portland State College, and she enrolled there and finished her bachelor's degree as part of the second graduating class, in 1958," Odell said. "She became a social studies teacher in high school."

She and Rice divorced the next year. In 1960, she married Frank Roberts; they divorced in 1965, but she retained his name even after she married a fellow state legislator, Keith Skelton, in 1968; he died in 1995.

Roberts taught in three high schools in the Portland area, first at Reynolds, where she remained until the school wanted to make her Dean of Girls, but she didn't want to leave teaching. She took another teaching job at Centennial High School, but when she requested permission to run for the state Legislature, the school board said it wouldn't renew her contract if she won. However, David Douglas High School embraced the possibility of having a state legislator on its faculty and hired her. During the same period, Roberts was commuting to Eugene after hours and on weekends, pursuing a master's degree in political science at the University of Oregon.

"At that time, she was still focused on teaching, but in college," Odell said. "But she talked to the dean of political science at the UO, and he said she was too old - she was 39. And when she realized there had never been a female faculty member in that department and few females in the classes, she knew that wasn't her path."

Feeling that all doors for advancement were closed to her, she began to rethink her options. In 1962, she entered the Northwestern School of Law - now Lewis & Clark Law School - and completed her degree, still teaching high school at David Douglas and taking classes at night, in 1966.

In the meantime, she won election to the state Legislature in 1964, as a Multnomah County Democrat to the House of Representatives. She served two terms there and then won a state Senate seat in 1968, as the only female member of that chamber. After Roberts married Skelton, the state Elections Division, the Oregon State Bar and the Oregonian newspaper all refused to refer to her as Roberts, instead calling her Mrs. …

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