Teacher, Mentor, and Colleague:
Remembering Warren

Patsy Powell, Monroe County resident and owner of a Turpin rocker
I met Warren Roberts through his wife, Barbara, when we were members of the Bloomington Chamber Music group. He was such a quiet, unassuming man who was at the time working on research about the Turpin chair business at Mt. Tabor. I had just discovered that I had found a Turpin rocker in one of the building’s on my parents’ farm. I was working on restoring it when a lady from Gosport, Hattie Spencer, came to my homeplace. She immediately said, “That’s a Turpin rocker!” I asked how she knew. She said, “When I was a young girl my father took me to Tabor to get a child’s rocker for me from the Turpin brothers."

Later, when I walked into Warren Roberts’s home and saw the Turpin chairs he had, I told him this story. This quiet man was so excited that he immediately wanted to see my rocker and met Hattie Spencer. This connection with her solved the gap in his research. Here was the verification of what he had suspected about the Turpin brothers and where their business was located. What a pleasure it was for me to be a party to this discovery for him. He then published his article about the brothers and described how he could tell which one of the brothers had made each chair.

Warren was also dedicated to documenting tree-stump tombstones. It was so exciting to see his slide show about the skill in carving and the location of each of the tombstones. He was very interested in discovering how our local folks lived and how they earned their living. His membership in Bloomington Restorations, Inc. and support of this group is reflected still today by the annual Warren Roberts Award given in his memory.

Alice Reed Morrison, Ph.D. folklore, Indiana University, 1986
I took Warren Roberts’s summer folklore fieldwork course in Dubois County, Indiana in 1978 as a graduate student, perhaps the last year it was offered. I was new to folklore and to Indiana—arriving sight unseen from my home in Fairbanks, Alaska where I had returned after finishing a B.A. at Reed College (Warren’s alma mater, too) in Portland, Oregon two years earlier. Like Warren, as well, I had entered the field of folklore through an interest in oral literature, particularly folktales.

Warren Roberts’s enthusiasm for the rich cultural tapestry of folklife everywhere on display in Dubois County and his deep respect for the local people had a life-changing effect on me. In the midst of absorbing the sheer novelty of the lush, pastoral landscape and sticky hot climate, the alien ticks and chiggers and poison ivy, I followed Warren around with the other students and soaked in the experience of German Catholic symbolism, log artifacts, folk craftsmen creating, ethnic foodways, farmsteads, cemeteries. Warren’s never-ending fascination for and appreciation of folk tradition was transferred to me that summer and has determined the course of my life since.

Marsh Davis, President, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana
Warren broadened the scope of what we preserve. The relevance of folk and vernacular architecture to the historic preservation movement cannot be overstated, and neither can Warren’s contributions to the field. The heritage of our state and especially of those whose lives were not chronicled in words are vastly more valued and understood, thanks to Warren.

Richard E. Meyer, Professor Emeritus, English & Folklore, Western Oregon University.
(Richard served 12 years as editor of Markers, the annual journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies.)

Warren Roberts began studying and writing about Indiana limestone gravemarkers at a time when virtually the only attention being paid to such funerary artifacts was focused upon 17th and 18th century slate markers from colonial New England. Not only did he call attention to the potential richness of gravestone studies in other regional and subregional areas of the country, he was also the first folklorist to systematically and thoroughly apply the investigative and analytical features of his discipline to the study of these artifacts. To cite but one example, his early articles concerning the depiction of tools on southern Indiana gravestones remain today as models for the study of this type of material occupational folklore

Duncan Campbell, Director, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, Department of Architecture, College of Architecture and Planning, Ball State University
Warren was, of course, fond of debunking “folklore” mythologies, and I recall that he wrote a comment on a paper of mine that I won’t soon forget. I had written about the Borland House c. 1835 (where I live) and put together sources from written history, oral history, and artifact in an effort to paint an accurate history of the early Borland settlers, two brothers, who came to Indiana around 1822, and finished out their days in Bloomington as a Trustee and Comptroller for the Indiana Seminary, later IU. Since one brother was a surveyor and the other a carpenter-joiner, I remarked that they were not your typical pioneers as history likes to describe them, but that they came on the cusp of statehood with the full intention of exploiting land development opportunities in the newly anointed state. Warren commented that in fact, these men were likely more typical than not, since very few of those we now consider pioneers came striding across the land in buckskins with axes on their shoulders, but more likely came as speculators in frock coats (to paraphrase)—a lesson I had learned through my research, but the significance of which I had not fully understood.

Simon J. Bronner, Distinguished University Professor of Folklore and American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
The field school had been going on a few years when I arrived at IU in 1977. Students received credit for it under the fieldwork course and stayed in a convent in Ferdinand, Indiana. It was only 10 dollars a night so that helped us make it feasible to have extended stays there. Warren had some visits he arranged, such as visiting a blacksmith in Ferdinand and a rolling-pin maker outside of town, but mostly we were on our own. We got together for an evening meal, though, and talked about what we encountered. There was no TV there, but there was a ping-pong table and Warren was a master there. He even sang an occasional ballad. I can say he was much more animated in Ferdinand than he was in the classroom at IU. . . . I was introduced to turtle soup by Warren, who suggested going to a church picnic in Fulda, Indiana, for the food. But I followed that experience up by asking about where the turtle soup hunters and butchers were, and Warren appreciated my contact with them, which he did not have. . . . I’ll . . . tell you a foodways anecdote from one of the trips I took with Warren when it was just the two of us going out into the countryside. We stopped in a little diner to eat and the server asked Warren if he “liked to have pie for dessert.” With a twinkle in his eye, Warren replied, “there are only two kinds of pie I like—hot and cold!”

Gary Stanton, Associate Professor of Historic Preservation and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington
In my view Dr. Roberts combined his academic understanding of the processes of diffusion of folk narrative, his own highly developed skills as an avocational woodworker, his empathy and nostalgia for the rural communities of Indiana, with a personal satisfaction of discovering practices and traditions that were non-academic, non-factory practices that could be investigated at little cost and did not involve overnight travel distant from his home and family. His writing and teaching sought to present these rural residents cleansed of the disagreeable elements of poverty, racial hatreds, social and economic bullying, and the psychological disfunction that is present and then submerged in these areas where or when these families lacked the mobility to leave. His emphasis on the lone craftsman as tradition bearer may as much be a product of his own preferences as they were summaries of his investigation.

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