Roberta F. Smith, longtime Reporter editor
Last updated 9/30/2021 at 8:35am
A story I frequently tell is when I graduated from journalism school my mother said I could work for her until I found a real job.
That was in January of 1979 and my mother, Roberta F. Smith, after several years as the editor of The South Pittsburgh Reporter had also become the publisher of the weekly newspaper.
Although she was probably known best for her work with The Reporter, she was so much more. Roberta’s story ended this last weekend after a long battle with a terrible disease, but I’d like to think about the better times and some of her accomplishments.
Roberta came from a newspaper family. Her father and two brothers worked in the composing room of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and her first job in high school was collecting contest entries in the newspaper’s lobby.
My mother married my father, William T. Smith (Bill to everyone), and soon after had four kids. I was the second child and the first son. In the early years as children were being added to the family, we bounced around from house to house, several in Hilltop neighborhoods, before we ended up in St. Clair Village.
It was after my younger brother was born, the fourth child and now two girls and two boys, that I remember my mother having her first job. She was working in a new program just starting up, the Head Start Program.
After a few years of my father working multiple jobs, sometimes as many as three at a time, and going to school in the evenings, my parents bought their first home in Allentown. It wasn’t much, but it was all theirs.
I’m a little fuzzy on the timeline, so excuse me if I remember things out of order.
At one point Roberta took a job as the executive director of the South Side Chamber of Commerce. The first woman to hold the position. At that point the Chamber was thriving with more than 300 members including major industries.
One of the first offices I remember the Chamber being in was on 16th Street, up on the second floor. It was a small space and it wasn’t long before they moved downstairs to a smaller storefront with barely room for a single desk.
It’s the next office I recall more clearly, the one in the 1400 block of East Carson Street. There, the Chamber shared office space with The Reporter and Roberta and Shelly became lifelong friends.
Although I was pretty young, I remember Mom talking about “Operation Georgetown” and “Old Birmingham.” There were parades and luncheons and fireworks and selling hot dogs at the new South Side Riverfront Park.
During that time, I can remember going on our first family “vacation,” one where you got to stay in a hotel. Thinking back, it wasn’t much of a vacation for Roberta, it was a Chamber of Commerce conference in Ligonier. She spent a great deal of time attending conferences and going to conventions representing the Chamber.
Having left college when she got married, Roberta decided to pursue her degree and re-enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. She took night classes while working during the day and eventually earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in English.
A strong-willed woman, Roberta would occasionally have disagreements with her bosses at the Chamber and eventually left, but was destined to return.
Another job she held was at The Brashear Association as a Neighborhood Worker. For as long as I can remember, Mom always worked a lot of evenings and being a neighborhood worker required attending a lot of community meetings after regular work hours. The same as they do now.
Since she was already attending meetings throughout the community, she began reporting on those meetings for The Reporter. She would get paid 10 cents a printed column inch for writing about what happened at the meeting.
Already involved in and friends with people in the community, she would not only report on, but frequently volunteer to help with neighborhood events.
As time went on, she was offered the position of editor of The Reporter. She readily accepted even though it would mean she would be out at community meetings even more evenings a week. There would be times she would at community or board meetings four times a week and neighborhood events on the weekends.
With her community involvement, Roberta was elected to the Board of Directors of the South Side Chamber of Commerce and The Brashear Association. In each of those organizations she would rise to be the first woman president of their Boards of Directors.
As editor of The Reporter, she would often write “Commentorials,” her version of the paper’s editorial. She would often “stir the pot,” but only if she thought it was in the best interest of the communities she lived and worked in.
Although Roberta frequently spoke in public, at community and organizational events, she didn’t enjoy small talk. That’s not to say she didn’t have friends, she enjoyed a good party and talking with her close friends. Roberta could count senators, representatives, mayors and city and borough council members among her friends. She knew everyone and everyone knew who Roberta was. If they had cell phones then, her contact list would be enormous.
Although she was loyal to those friends, she wouldn’t hesitate to let them know if she didn’t approve of a position or a stand they were taking.
Roberta also enjoyed getting away from things, whether it was having a late evening cocktail on the front porch with neighbors or traveling for a week at the lake with family, it was her time away.
After several years, I began a series of internships at The Reporter under my mother’s direction. It wasn’t easy, as anyone who has worked for Roberta could tell you, but I learned every aspect of putting a weekly newspaper together. At the end of 1978, the publishers offered Roberta the paper for a nominal amount and Roberta offered me a job, until I could find a “real” one.
Roberta then concentrated on the editorial side of the paper, leaving the production side to me. The arrangement allowed her to take time off. And she did.
Not long after I started, Roberta left for North Carolina for three weeks to be with her daughter after the birth of her first grandson. She would eventually have six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Roberta continued her volunteer work and got the acting bug after participating in a “Murder Mystery” fundraiser with The Brashear Association. She joined the cast of the Veronica’s Veil Players, enjoying every production she had the opportunity to act in.
Her involvement in the community increased with her appointment to the Board of Directors of The South Side Hospital. She often talked about having to make the motion to sell the local hospital to UPMC. She said the board wanted a “community person” to make the motion for the sale.
After the sale, Roberta became a member of the Birmingham Foundation’s Board of Directors. The foundation was created from the proceeds from the sale of the hospital.
While she was very involved with South Side organizations, Roberta would also volunteer her time with the Mount Oliver Area Chamber of Commerce. She enjoyed helping with their events and counted many of the members as her friends.
Her awards and proclamations could cover a wall, and did in her South Side office before her retirement. When Roberta retired at the end of 1999, she only took a few of her recognitions, among them were the South Side Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year, The Brashear Association Community Service Award, a Community Service proclamation from the Mount Oliver Borough Council and Special Recognition from the Mount Oliver Chamber of Commerce.
There were also framed proclamations from the Pennsylvania State Senate and House of Representatives and Pittsburgh City Council in her home office.
Roberta’s story ended on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 18, but she will not be forgotten.
Editor’s Note: I know Roberta would not be happy with this story and would have either taken a red pen to it or rewrote it entirely. She will always be my editor.