Students and family remember Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts as a passionate teacher whose commitment to her field inspired them to follow their own interests with the same drive.
Roberts, a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, died from breast cancer at the age of 58 on Sept. 11. Aside from teaching, Roberts’ career included international research on African artforms in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal and curating exhibitions at the Fowler Museum.
Roberts was exposed to African art at a young age, as her parents collected African art while moving around Africa during Roberts’ childhood. She met her husband Allen Roberts, also a professor in the WACD department, while studying at Columbia University. After moving to Iowa for five years, they both received offers to work at UCLA.
Allen Roberts said his wife’s ability to inspire her students was one of her greatest strengths as an educator.
“She was so passionate about her work and about helping other people find their passion in their work and their places in the world. What people always remember is how her smile and laughter were so compelling,” he said. “She radiated warmth, light and brilliance in every way.”
Peter Haffner, a current postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, said Mary Roberts and her husband were his dissertation co-chairs during the course of his six-year Ph.D. program at UCLA.
“On occasion (her guidance) really went beyond her required role,” Haffner said. “She was always making the time to talk and go over ideas, edit my work and give good feedback all while she was dealing with her own work and the (cancer) treatments.”
Haffner said he thinks Mary Roberts was especially proud of her achievements at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the last eight years of her life, such as curating the museum’s first gallery of African art.
“She continued, even until her last days, to really help museums rethink how they thought about African arts and get audiences to look at art objects without old colonial misconceptions and instead as things that were made by actual people who have families, and lives, and fears and desires,” he said.
Allen Roberts said his wife served as an example of professional and personal achievement to many women, recalling how she undertook the responsibilities of her career without compromising her compassion and her core values.
“She is remembered for her grace and optimism but also for her style,” he said. “Many women have told me that Polly stands to them as an example of somebody who managed a very successful academic career as well as motherhood and a family life.”
Allen Roberts said that when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to speak frankly about her health with her students.
“In the eight-and-a-half years she had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, she would not use metaphors of battle and struggle because that implied that someone loses, so instead she said she was ‘living with breast cancer,’” he said. “She talked with her classes about her own life and its difficulties, and being so open with people meant that they felt they could be open with her.”
Sylas Cooper, a former undergraduate student of Mary Roberts’, said he thinks her impact on her communities cannot be overstated. One example was her involvement in seminars for women with metastatic breast cancer, which she organized through the Susan G. Komen foundation.
“She’s a community creator and she created these beautiful communities,” he said.
During his second year at UCLA, Cooper decided to incorporate his culinary interests into an assignment about museum curation while enrolled in Mary Roberts’ Curating Cultures course. Cooper said that although his idea of a popup restaurant museum was not fully within the scope of the assignment, she appreciated his incorporation of his own interests so much that she began using his project as an example in her subsequent classes.
“She was so passionate but also so accepting of other people’s way of learning,” he said.
Cooper said he viewed Mary Roberts as a personal and professional role model while at UCLA.
“She inspired me to start applying to museums. She changed what I wanted to do in my life,” Cooper said. “In her classes, we focused a lot on art but it’s more like we focused on what can we do to change the world.”
Cooper said he thinks Mary Roberts’ legacy will be her philosophy on immersive learning.
“I talked with Polly for hours one time because I literally got lost in this museum and she was chuckling and she said ‘No, you’re doing this assignment right,’” he said. “Every assignment was practical, like ‘Go do something out there in the world and come back and tell me what it was like.’”