The sun was rising that fall 2005 morning after one of the longest nights of Robin Roberts’ life, and as terrible as it had all been—driving for hours through Lafayette, Biloxi, these once-vibrant Mississippi towns, witnessing the endless devastation Hurricane Katrina had dealt to the area she’d grown up in—it would, somehow, be OK.
Thanks to a police escort, she’d picked through the rubble to her hometown of Pass Christian and found the home where her mom, her sister and her sister’s kids were staying—all safe and sound. And now, as dawn settled over the destruction, the recently named coanchor of Good Morning America could be in her element: stoic, professional, reporting on the scene. And it was going fine…until her coanchor Charlie Gibson asked if she’d found her family. Then, it all came, like a flood: the unstoppable tears.
“I was gonna be all ‘Journalism 101,’ just the facts, until Charlie Gibson made it personal,” she recalls. “And I just couldn’t hold it in anymore; I was bawling like a little baby. And I promise you, I thought, that’s it, I’m done.”
Roberts had, by then, built a career as a rocksolid TV presence, a groundbreaker, a woman of color who’d anchored SportsCenter on ESPN, before moving on to GMA as a news reader and finally, coanchor, alongside Gibson and Diane Sawyer. It would take Roberts years—of living, of dealing with life-threatening illnesses, of regaining herself and thriving the way her hometown did, all while continuing a career as one of the country’s premier newswomen—to stop apologizing for opening herself up that post-Katrina morning. “I [have since] realized, when is authenticity not the right thing to do as a journalist? Thankfully that is what has come through.”
To GMA viewers, Roberts’ authenticity is unparalleled. Her nearly 10 years in the anchor’s chair of what has been, for the last 2½ years, the most popular morning television show in America, is the latest part of a career marked by determination, charisma and a need to meet all challenges with the focus that marked her early triumphs as a basketball and tennis star. “She’s a pioneer in broadcasting and cable, a unique, charismatic personality who has made a difference on many levels,” says John A. Walsh, executive editor at ESPN, who recalls a young Roberts who came to his door one day and said, “‘I want to be challenged.’ She took the challenges and learned from them, and gave herself confidence to go do other things. In my 40-some years in the business, there are not a lot of people who’ve done something like that.”
“I’m always grateful, but not necessarily content,” Roberts says of Walsh’s recollection. “I’m grateful for any opportunities that I’ve had. I’m grateful to ESPN; not very many women [have been in that position], I was the first black woman, I get that—‘yay.’ But I wanted to do the work.”
That work ethic came naturally to the daughter of one of the famed Tuskeegee Airmen, and Roberts’ mom—the first African-American director of the Mississippi state Board of Education. Roberts’ early passion was sports, but her degree in communications at Southeastern Louisiana University may have been influenced by watching her sister Sally Ann do the local weather on New Orleans’ WWL-TV before her rise to anchor on the newscast.
In 1983, Roberts traded her hoop dreams for a part-time job as weekend anchor at a Hattiesburg, Miss. station. Local sports posts at other stations led her, ultimately, to Atlanta’s WAGA in the late 1980s. There, she worked under then WAGA news director and now president of CNBC Mark Hoffman and then WAGA GM and now legendary Belo Corp. exec and 2009 B&C Hall of Famer Jack Sander.
“She was plowing new ground back then, going where certainly no other female African-American sports person had gone,” Sander says.
“What I saw was a young person who was earnest and ambitious but lovely at the same time,” Hoffman says. “She had a way about her that allowed people to warm up to her.”
They were the characteristics that had gotten ESPN’s attention, and Roberts joined the sports network in 1990 where she blazed a trail for 15 years, doing double duty for 10 of those years on sister network ABC’s GMA broadcasts. Roberts rose to the GMA anchor chair in 2005, and began sharing the desk with George Stephanopoulos in 2009.
That word “share” has become an operative one for Roberts. Through a 2007 treatment for breast cancer, and a 2011 diagnosis for rare blood disorder MDS, Roberts allowed cameras to follow what would be difficult battles to recover her health. Her honesty has brought the GMA team and its viewers closer together, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. President Obama was sitting across from Roberts when, in May 2012, he first came out in favor of same-sex marriage. When, seven months later, Roberts herself publicly acknowledged her sexuality, thanking her longtime girlfriend, Amber Laign, for sticking by her through her health issues in a Facebook post, it was met with public support.
Now, Roberts prepares to take on new challenges, starting with the formation of her production company, Rock’n Robin.
“Robin is the heart and soul of ABC News and the most trusted person in television news today,” says Ben Sherwood, who was promoted in March from president of ABC News to cochairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC television, posts he will assume officially in February. “And most of all she is a beautiful, strong, independent woman who has shown us what it means to take on life’s greatest challenges. I think the asterisk on this Hall of Fame award is that she’s not even close to being done yet. Her best and brightest days are ahead. And we can’t wait to see what she does.”