This relentless volunteer of the valley has added meaning to her life through giving to others
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior reporter
When they say dynamite comes in small packages, it might just be Marge Roberts they’re referring to. Seeing her for the first time you might think, “what a nice lady.” Trust me, she is much more than that. One might call her the most powerful volunteer in the San Jacinto Valley. She doesn’t just volunteer — she organizes volunteers.
I sat down with Marge recently in her well-appointed condo to discuss all of the things I’d been hearing about her. “You have to interview Marge,” is a phrase I’ve been hearing for weeks. “She is the garden lady of the valley.”
Marge is not a native of Hemet — not even of California.
“I was born in Washington, D.C. My father had a position with the Federal Trade Commission until he died at an early age of 44 and left my mother with five youngsters to raise,” said Marge. “Times were hard. She found a more menial job with the government but did not make enough to support us all and for a time I went to live with another family.”
Despite the hardships, Marge managed to finish public school and attend a teacher’s college in D.C. They were known as “normal schools,” in those days. She took a teaching position in the D.C. school district and taught there for a few years.
“It was an all black school and I was the only white teacher on staff. My peers accepted me quite well and I never felt uncomfortable or out of place,” she said. “One of the highlights of my D.C. teaching career was the opportunity to take my students on tours of the White House. That was during the Eisenhower Administration. I have always relished that experience.”
Her family, at that time, had begun to scatter to various parts of the country, finding their own way and work. Marge seemed always to look beyond her environment. There was something outside of Washington and she wanted to go there and learn what it was all about.
“One day I packed up, got behind the steering wheel of my Chevrolet, headed to the southwestern part of America and never looked back. My first stop was in New Mexico, where I spent a couple of years, and then to Arizona for somewhat the same amount of time. My next stop was Hemet. I liked it and I stayed.”
She taught school wherever she ventured. “My bailiwick was elementary school. I taught second grade through fifth with some sixth, but not much, although I liked teaching at that level. Kindergarten and first grade didn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t interested in raising other people’s children.”
Few people know, but Marge Roberts is a member of Mensa – and that means she’s just a tad, at least, more intelligent than most of us — at least smarter than yours truly. An acquaintance or relative suggested that she test for Mensa. She did and passed with flying colors, which was a link to something bigger and better in her life.
“Through Mensa I took up a long distance relationship with a fella who lived in Florida,” she revealed. “I liked him and we seemed to have some compatibility.”
They enjoyed that long distance affair, sometimes connecting for periods of time and then he moved to San Diego and one day realized we were in love and why not get married.
“George Roberts and I were married in a private home in the 400 block of Harvard Street in Hemet and settled down to become a family. I have one daughter and granddaughter from our marriage.”
After Marge and George retired, they traveled. “Sometimes it was Mexico or Florida or New York,” she said. “We visited Europe several times, taking in the culture and history of different countries.”
When George died in 2003, her life changed. She became less of a gad-about and found other interests here in the San Jacinto Valley. She enjoyed writing and has published several books of poetry and a couple of non-fiction books. “Wing Tip to Wing Tip” is the story of eight women who flew the planes during WWII.
“Without George I knew I could not sit idly by and do nothing, so I began to volunteer,” she said. “I found volunteering a rewarding way to spend time, and being a people person I met so many wonderful human beings. I volunteered for civic things because I thought they were worthwhile.”
One of her first ventures into giving of herself was Habitat for Humanity. “I really enjoyed that because it helped so many deserving people. I never hammered or nailed or anything like that,” she said. “My job was to go out and recruit deserving people who needed a home. It was complicated because there is so much investigative work in making sure the applicants were qualified. I sought out those suitable to build homes for — folks who helped in the building of their homes. When someone is willing to work toward their own home by participating in the construction, you know they are deserving.”
One day she attended a workshop with some other folks who wanted to improve their community. “We were asked what we were going to do to improve our community. It was a direct question that inspired to a group of us to action.”
Ellie Norton, known for years as one of the most elegant women in Hemet, and whose life has always been dedicated to others, made a suggestion. “We used to have an organization called Valley Beautiful. It has sort of been forgotten, but they did wonderful work.”
Someone said, “Let’s resurrect it,” and they did. Ellie, who moved away and lives with her daughter today up near Sacramento, explained all of the wonderful changes that the earlier group had made in the valley. That was some 20 years ago.
Marge says, “We kind of worked our way, breaking up into several teams: one to the Hemet Depot at State and Florida, others taking on the Estudillo Mansion in San Jacinto. “It really had gone to pot and was a mess when Valley Beautiful took it over. Now it is one of the show places in the state; I was involved in that.”
Sometime between 2008 or 2009 Marge heard that the gardening up at the Ramona Bowl was in somewhat of a state of disrepair.
“I decided to do something about that.” She took on that project religiously and for all these many years has been there every Wednesday to do her part in beautifying the flora of the hillside. In 2011 she was given a special award for her efforts.
“I still go every Wednesday, except lately the weather hasn’t cooperated.” However, she isn’t complaining. “We need the rain. The hillsides have been bone dry due to the drought, so the water is a blessing.”
“You know, Rusty, we have dozens of wonderful volunteers in the valley. Anywhere you go there are people willing to volunteer.” She believes that some simply form organizations from scratch, find a project and go after it.
“Giving is a wonderful thing to do. I often hear people say, ‘I want to give back.’ Nice as it is, throwing some change in a collection plate is not giving back,” she said. “Giving back is because we are human and we all have pluses and minuses and there comes a time for all of us when you need your fellow man and if you have never given anything back, you are kind of lost. Giving back doesn’t mean you are going to get something out of it. Sometimes I call myself a philosopher. Coming through the years people say give, give, give. It is most important to learn how to receive. You have to receive or you will never know how to give.”
I realized that I’m not just interviewing a volunteer – this woman is a philosopher with an important message.
“Somewhere you have honored the giver by receiving. If you decline, you have ignored that person’s gift,” she said. “Some people have to learn to receive. Giving is easier. All too often, because of earlier experiences, some folks have a feeling of unworthiness — feeling that they don’t deserve it. Our ethics are sometime the culprit.”
I could write volumes about this wonderful woman who knows more about life and living than any human being I’ve ever known or interviewed.
“If you list the things you are thankful for, it is good for the mind and health. I have more than most women on the planet. You have more than most men. We are the fortunate ones with what we have. We should be thankful. Maybe then the feeling of not deserving will be brushed away. Honor the giver.”
Somehow we drifted away from our original thoughts, but I could not let this woman’s philosophy about humanity not be exposed to the world. I asked, after a life of giving to others, what were her future plans.
“Oh, I’ve had various physical challenges. Not big ones, but challenges I’d rather not have to deal with,” she admitted. “I can’t just get up and go like George and I used to do. I will continue to write about things I believe in. I also have my little garden of vegetables and roses and other flowers. In the patio my hummingbirds are there sipping the nectar I put out for them. You know, they’re attracted to red.
“When I am feeling kind of lonely, I ask myself who else might be lonely. It is easy to put a little interest in somebody else’s life. So I call and have a chat with someone and it makes us both feel a little better.
“You asked me about volunteering. Isn’t life a volunteer trip?”
Marge Roberts has friends, and friends, to me, are as enviable as ambition itself. We could all learn a lot about life and ourselves from this remarkable woman who thinks more about helping others than helping herself. Maybe that’s her secret.
Your comments, as always, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.