(June 29, 1867 - April 12, 1942)
Maria Roberts was involved in numerous efforts on campus, from the first play performed at Iowa State as a student, being a major professor for George Washington Carver, to her role as Dean of the Junior College.
Maria Mabel Roberts was born June 29, 1867, in Dunlap, Iowa to farmer Benjamin F. Roberts and Ellen Rogers who had been an early school teacher in Harrison County. Maria was usually known as Minnie. She attended the common and high schools in Dunlap and graduated from high school in 1884. She entered Iowa State College (now University) in 1887 and graduated in 1890 with a Bachelor of Science degree.
Roberts obviously threw herself into campus life and was active in a wide array of activities. She was the first president of the campus branch of the YWCA, and also active the rest of her life in the Pi Beta Phi sorority after joining the Iowa Gamma chapter in 1888. She was one of a cast of four which staged the first student play ever performed at Iowa State. Another unusual activity that she was involved in was Company G. It was first organized in 1878 for women students who requested that they be given military training. Roberts was quoted in the Des Moines Register of August 18, 1940: “We drilled on the campus every morning at seven. We wore dark blue dresses that almost swept the ground and carried spears.” Military training was compulsory for male students. Women volunteered to take the training, partly because there was no athletic program for them. About 30 women took the training at any one time, and they performed the manual of arms with spears. Female cadets went to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and “created quite a sensation with their uniforms and spears.” Company G was disbanded about 1895 when an athletic program was launched for women.
Following her graduation, Roberts taught in Des Moines public schools, then was hired to teach mathematics at Iowa State as an Assistant in 1891 at a salary of $400 a year. She was promoted to the rank of Instructor in 1896 and Assistant Professor in 1902. In 1904 she became an Associate Professor and in 1916 attained the rank of Professor. She had become Vice Dean of the Junior College in 1907, and on the death of Dean Edgar Stanton she became acting dean in 1920. She was promoted to Dean in 1921. This involved general supervision of all academic activities of freshmen and sophomore students and administering a large department. In 1933 she was named Dean Emeritus and Director of Student Loans until her death in 1942.
In 1918 Roberts collaborated on a textbook with her close friend Julia Trueman Colpitts, who also taught mathematics at Iowa State, and published the first edition of Analytical Geometry with John Wiley and Sons. They published a revised edition in 1926. It was a popular textbook used by many institutions across the country. She was also a member of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America.
Roberts also enjoyed travelling during vacations. She travelled throughout the United States, as well as to many other countries. She often travelled with her colleague and co-author Professor Julia Coppitts to international conferences. In 1931 she undertook what even today would be considered an adventurous trip lasting two months. With a friend Mrs. W.H. Stevenson, wife of the head of the farm crops and soils department, she sailed from New York to Lisbon and on round the Mediterranean visiting countries in North Africa as well as southern Europe. After visiting Athens and Istanbul they landed at Beirut and took a nine day tour of Palestine and Egypt. They then crossed the Mediterranean again and travelled through Italy and Eastern Europe visiting Vienna, Budapest and Prague. After two months of travelling Roberts had to cut short her trip after receiving news that her brother Orrin was sick. She caught a steamer home from Hamburg, Germany while her friend continued their extended vacation around Scandinavia.
Roberts attended every reunion of her class, and was a lifetime member of the Alumni Association. In 1932 when the Alumni Fund was organized she was elected President of its Board of Trustees. She held this position until her death. She raised approximately $100,000 from alumni and other friends of the college for student loans, student emergency health needs and the establishment of memorials. On the fiftieth anniversary of her graduation in June 1940, President Charles Friley conferred upon her the Doctor of Laws Degree. At the same time her portrait and a $5000 student loan fund were presented by her classmates, other alumni, and faculty members of the college in her honor. The portrait by Chicago artist Othmar Hoffler was hung in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union. The portrait remains in the Iowa State University, University Museums permanent collection. A new women’s dormitory completed in 1939 was named Robert’s Hall in her honor.
Dean Roberts died on April 12, 1942, in Mary Greeley Hospital in Ames three months after falling on an icy sidewalk near her apartment. Funeral services were held in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union and she was buried in the Iowa State Cemetery on the campus where she had spent her whole academic career. Her service to Iowa State is permanently honored by a paver on the Plaza of Heroines outside Catt Hall.
Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives contains a collection of materials about Maria Roberts, RS 13/14/A. Considering her long distinguished service to Iowa State, the contents are very sparse and consist of some brief biographical materials, an extensive and interesting diary and scrapbook of her 1931 tour to Europe, North Africa, Palestine and Egypt, and a few grade books from early in her career.