By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Don Roberts, the longest serving African American male TV broadcaster in Hampton Roads, will be signing off and retiring, he said, on September 29.
A Baltimore native, Roberts was a reporter and now Morning News Anchor at WAVY-TV 10 for three decades.
Roberts joined WAVY in 1981, left a year later to take a reporter job at “WTAR TV 3. That career move lasted five years, he said.
“I worked hard to get an opportunity to anchor. And when a position came up, management gave it to someone else with less anchor and reporting experience.”
Roberts says he resigned a short time later, “out of frustration, and to avoid burning out.”
Roberts worked with the legendary WRAP-AM DJ and Operations Manager Chester Benton for two years while also working part time with a radio traffic reporting network to make ends meet.
Two years later, owners of WRAP sold the station, and fearing he’d soon be out of a job, Roberts began looking around for another opportunity. WAVY -TV was also looking for someone to anchor their brand new morning news show.
Roberts started that job in September of 1989, thus becoming the first Black male in Hampton Roads to host and anchor a week day news program.
Roberts, now 66, has been a constant presence in the community. He says before the pandemic, it was hard to say “no” to teachers or civic group leaders who asked him to speak to students or group members. He estimates, in one year, he spoke at 150 school and civic events.
Over the years, Roberts would awaken in the wee hours of the morning, go to the WAVY studios in Portsmouth, do the morning show, and then venture off into a series of appearances before school children or other gatherings to engage the public.
He has authored two books. “Rap To Live By,” published in 1993, is a collection of life advice written in positive poetry and rap. In 2004, he published “Hey, Daddy, Read This.” It includes a letter and tribute to his father, Nathaniel, who died in 2012. “Hey Daddy” also includes a collection of about 130 letters that “children” from ages 8 to 80 wrote to their fathers. He says he’s used the book to help illustrate the difference between a “father” and a “dad.” “A dad”, he said, has to earn the name.
“Whether he’s anchoring the news or volunteering with at-risk youth, Don’s devotion to our community is unparalleled,” said WAVY-TV 10 and WVBT-FOX43 Vice President and General Manager Carol Ward. “While I am sad to see him go, I look forward to seeing the next chapter in his life.”
Roberts is also known for his “Wednesday’s Child” reports where he featured children in foster care waiting for adoption and children in single parent families hoping to be matched with adult volunteer mentors.
Roberts, known for his bright smile and distinctive bow ties, said he likes setting a “different style” in all phases of his life.
Who inspired him to enter broadcast journalism? Roberts said there were few Black newscasters on the TV screen in the early 70s when he was a youth. This includes his role model, Al Sanders, the first full-time Black male anchor in Baltimore.”
Then there was Ed Bradley, one of the first African Americans to anchor a network evening news program. Bradley also was the first Black reporter on CBS’s popular “60 Minutes” news show.
“Like those two,” Roberts said, “I wanted to do something that means something.”
Roberts said one of the most memorable stories he covered was during the more than 20 years of producing the “Wednesday’s Child” reports. He spotlighted a 10-year-old boy in a single parent family who wanted a mentor.
Roberts said a Newport News Shipbuilding employee, Anthony Dodson of Hampton, answered the young man’s call through the Big Brothers-Big Sisters program. That little boy grew up. He’s now about 6’5″ and 300 pounds, and a college student studying to be a chef. And, yes, he thanks his mentor. His mentor thanks Roberts for helping bring them together.
Roberts said his career as a broadcast journalist and community service worker has been emotionally rewarding. But the constant drumbeat of crime he has to report each morning, involving young Black men, especially, helped drive him to retirement.
“Every day, I would do one positive story and then four negative ones related to crime and violence,” he said. “Stories about Black men committing murder, or being murdered. It seems like it will never end.”
Roberts said that over the years he worked to expose the factors which cause so many Black men to take the wrong path, including a lack of mentors, positive, fun activities, and opportunities to succeed.
He dug deeper into the most sinister byproduct of the issues related to young Black men being at-risk and self-destructive–that being, incarceration. And, Roberts recalls that after months of planning and negotiating with authorities of a juvenile detention center, he and the camera crew were allowed in to interview the young inmates in November of 2015.
“The bars on the windows, the triple locked doors and the 8 x 12 cells, were pretty depressing. And, that was just from one visit. So, I thought about what it must be like for the kids, the teens, to spend months or years there!”
When he had the chance to talk to the teen inmates, he said he asked the obvious questions: “’Why are you here? What is next for you? What do you read?
What plan do you have once you get out of here?’ None of them had a clear answer or plan. ”
One young man who had much success with math, was awaiting trial for killing his father, The teen told Roberts his father was severely abusing his mother.
And when Roberts asked the teen what he did with his spare time while incarcerated, he said he played chess with the other inmates.
“I liked to play chess, too! So, I asked myself what could I do?”
Roberts said he started calling friends and acquaintances that he knew who also played the game. They started visiting the Newport News Juvenile Detention
Center every Wednesday, 4-6 p.m.. That, Roberts says, is how he and the core group created the Chess Nutz Knights Network, in 2016.
Since then, Robert said a large number of Black men, including Congressman Robert Scott, educators, and those from other walks of life, have volunteered to spend 90 minutes in juvenile detention centers around the region. They play chess with, and mentor incarcerated teens.
The network of men teaches the intricacies of chess, and sometimes learns a few tricks from the teens.
“Before the pandemic, Chess NutZ had about 100 men involved. We rotated weekly visits in Newport News and Norfolk so no one would burn out feeling they had to show up every week.”
Roberts says they stopped visiting the Juvenile Detention Centers due to the pandemic, but they will be resuming before the end of September.
And Roberts says, during his retirement, he hopes to solidify and expand the chess program to every juvenile detention center.
“Yes—there are that many chess players here, I believe, willing to play the game—with a purpose.”
Roberts says his chess program fills a gap reaching teens at the crossroads. “They’re at the crossroads. They all are going to get out one day. We hope to convince them to choose to stay out.”
Roberts says a key defensive strategy the Chess NutZ teaches the incarcerated teens is one they can also use for the rest of their lives. It’s also the motto of Chess NutZ Knights Network. “Think Before You Move – ALWAYS PROTECT THE KING.”
A graduate of Towson University, Roberts said once he retires, he and his wife, Varna, who have been married for 40 years, will travel. He said the couple will start in the western region of Virginia, tour sites such as the home of Sally Hemings. But, at the top of his retirement priority list? “I am going to sleep until I am tired of sleeping.”
He also wants to spend more time with his three adult children and his seven grandchildren.
Don Roberts’ last day at WAVY will be September 30.
For a look back at Roberts’ life and time at WAVY-TV 10, watch a special, “Don Roberts: Tying Up a Career”, Tuesday, September 27 at 6:30 p.m. on FOX43 and Saturday, October 1 at 7:30 a.m. on WAVY-TV 10.
Photo: NJG Files