**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor pilot project in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
By James Robinson / OC Monitor Community Contributor
My wife, Sandy, introduced me to Joe Van Roberts, or as she still refers to him, “Mr. Roberts,” before we married through her stories and memories of him as her band director.
When I moved to Ohio County in 1991, the stories of the local hero continued to permeate many conversations. It wasn’t until November of 1998 that I’d be formally introduced to the patriarch, when I interviewed as the first Director of Together We Care.
I was nervous. How could a Tennessee Hillbilly measure up to the great Mr. Roberts? Little did I know we were more alike than different. Mr. Roberts, or “Joe Van,” as I call him, became my first supervisor in the Ohio County School System; but, more so, he became a lifelong mentor, friend and confidant, who polished my weakest points, endured my greatest flaws and uncovered my hidden strengths. For readers who don’t know Joe Van, let me introduce you to him; for those of you who do know him, maybe this will generate some fond memories; and maybe we all go away feeling a little better in recognizing good people will always triumph.
Down on the Farm
Joe Van, the only child of Mr. OV and Marguerite, was raised on an 80-acre dairy farm in Butler County.
“At first, we milked by hand, but, when we increased our herd to 30 Holstens, Dad bought an electric milker,” Joe Van said. “As I recall, we were the first electric dairy operation in Butler County. We also raised hay and tobacco, and a big garden. Dad taught me how to harness the mule and plow our tobacco.”
Joe Van’s life was consumed by farm and church life, while daydreaming about the Old West. He was mesmerized by the cowboy life and spent his past time reading about the western frontier. However, the sound of the trumpet would redirect his path, and hundreds of others, forever.
Another Hall of Famer, the late Charles Black, instituted the first high school band in Butler County, Joe Van’s freshman year in 1953. Joe Van was introduced to, and fell in love with, the trumpet. He said,
“I wanted to play the trumpet because it was the instrument that sounded like a bugle in the old westerns I loved,” he said.
The band was widely supported by the community. It was, as Joe Van called it, “the new thing,” and became a fixture of pride for most. Black introduced Joe Van to the sound of legendary trumpeter and bandleader Harry James and that, said Joe Van, “sealed the deal.”
“Joe was an exceptionally good student and classmate who exhibited fine moral character at all times. His Christian walk never wavered. I am proud to have been and still be his friend.” — Les Johnson, former classmate
Kansas City, Here I Come
Many band members were also Future Farmers of America members. Joe Van continued to balance school with his farm duties and refined his skills as a trumpeter. In his senior year, Mr. Black formed an FFA brass band. That group won the state FFA talent competition. Joe Van and another student from Kentucky were selected to represent the Commonwealth at the FFA National Convention in Kansas City.
Joe Van and the other student were both, as he said, “wet behind the ears,” and strangers in a strange land. They arrived in Kansas a few days ahead of others to practice musical arrangements. President Truman was the guest speaker. The band wanted their performance of the Missouri Waltz to be perfect.
The FFA covered lodging and meals and gave each boy a daily stipend. One night, the boys became separated from their peers and, before they knew it, a gang of eight surrounded Joe Van and his friend. One of the gang members wielded a lug wrench, and another had a chain; four grabbed Joe Van, and the other four grabbed the other Kentucky boy. Though Joe Van didn’t suffer any physical injuries, his friend wasn’t so lucky.
“His stomach was the receiving end of the gang members’ fists,” said Joe Van.
The gang robbed the boys of all their cash and possessions.Joe Van and his friend made it safely back to the hotel and called the police. That’s when Joe Van took his first ride in a police car, when they drove the boys around the city looking for the assailants. They had no luck finding the offenders. Joe Van learned then that life will throw you punches when you least expect it, and when you least deserve it–a lesson that would help condition him for the darker times in his life.
The College Years
Joe Van entered Western Kentucky University to pursue a music degree. In the summers, he worked in upstate New York as a youth counselor for a Christian summer camp, mostly attended by inner-city youth from the Big Apple and other urban cities.
He said, “Instilling these young people with Christian values just seemed right to me.”
Not only did the experience expose Joe Van to kids with diverse backgrounds, he also made new Christian friends from around America. He particularly met students from Abilene Christian College in Texas. The Christian College students’ ideas of having fun appealed to him.
“I just liked the way they spent their time; they had devotions, spent time in prayer, and how they were God centered, in their activities.” Joe Van had, and still has, high regards for WKU. But, when he heard God and Texas calling, he answered.
While in Texas, Joe Van and his friends took a trip to Los Angeles. While there, one of his friends had a connection with a television studio and arranged a tour for Joe Van and his friends. While there, Joe Van heard a boisterous voice yelling several not so nice words because he couldn’t remember his lines. It was the voice of Dan Blocker, better known as “Hoss Cartwright” of the western series Ponderosa. He was able to see other stars and get a few autographs, as they were taping the television pilot. It’s safe to say, Joe Van was living out his childhood dream. He witnessed the production of a historic TV Western; was living in the Old West; and was preparing for a lifetime of service of ministry and music.
I’m Going Back, to Old Kentucky – The Joe Van Roberts Regime
Joe Van finished up his degree at Abilene and moved back to Kentucky. His first job was at Warren County High School (now Warren Central) as band director for one year. He made his way to Ohio County, serving at Beaver Dam Elementary and High School Band Director for two years. But greater things were on the horizon; Ohio County started shaking with the beat of drums, sounds of trumpets, and steps of the Ohio County Eagles Marching Band when, in 1965, Joe Van was hired as Ohio County High School’s first band director. He recalls, “There were about 100 members in the first band. Our first contest was in Central City, and we were awarded Grand Champion in our first time competing.”
In 1966, the band traveled to Memphis and performed in the Cotton Carnival Parade. The next year ,they traveled to Washington DC and marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival. But that was just the start of where Joe Van would lead his Marching Eagles as he took several bands on trips to Florida to the Festival of States and even crossed the “great pond” into Europe, performing for audiences in seven different countries.
He continued Ohio County’s Traditional Marching Band Contest (est. 1954), the longest running in Kentucky, which now awards the Grand Champion trophy in his honor.
One of the first things I remember my wife Sandy affectionately telling me about Joe Van was that, during her band camp days, he was waving his hands, his hair flying in the wind, stomping his foot on the scaffold/platform and shouting, “No, no, no! Flags, you look like you’re walking around in a tobacco patch! Now, get back in place, and do it right this time.” She went on to say, “We never got mad at him. We were never afraid of him. All of us had the utmost respect and love for him. I think that is part of what led us to win many contests.”
“Always give your best; the end result will be satisfactory” I remember Mr. Roberts saying…. He was a great role model, and I learned as much about being a respectable person from him as I did a musician.” — Eddie Embry, former student
Joe Van begin his ministry filling in for churches in and around Bowling Green, and an abbreviated ministry in McHenry. Then came the call from Sugar Grove Church of Christ. Sugar Grove is nestled in the remote part of Ohio County in a community called Renfrow. The people of Sugar Grove/Renfrow, formed a close relationship with Joe Van and his family.
I asked Joe Van why and how did he ever think he could raise a family, work a full-time job, be a band director and be a pastor?
“Well, Sugar Grove, when I started, was full of young families, and I had a young family. I knew I wanted to preach. And I wanted my family to be involved with other young Christian families. Ministering at Sugar Grove was the perfect fit. It allowed me to spend time with my family while serving others as their minister. It was, a challenge to fit everything in. But my family was always with me either in church or in the band, and I was still able to see them play ball and other activities they had”.
Sugar Grove loved Joe Van equally as well, evident of his 30 years of ministry there.
“Joe Van’s unwavering love and dedication was always felt by his church family. The life he lives is proof of the faith he holds.”
— Dewayne Johnson, parishioner, student, and staff member
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In 1985, Joe Van suffered a stroke. It caused temporary paralysis, and he was unable to speak. He felt powerless. “I knew in my mind I could move and talk, but my body wasn’t taking orders,” Joe Van told me. After time in therapy and slow, but progressive, improvement, Joe Van came back to work and resumed his role as Band Director for another year. But times were changing, and he felt the need to change, too. Nearly 50 years after first picking up the trumpet, he decided to lay it down along with his resignation as band director of the Marching Eagles, only to forge a new path that happened to travel my way.
Joe Van accepted a position in the Ohio County Schools Central Office as the Supervisor of Community Outreach. The responsibilities were as broad as the title. (I know; I assumed his role in 2002.). He was in charge of adult education, music education, grant writing, directing Title IV, and overseeing Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, DARE, and alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention programs. Many don’t know he was the writer and recipient of the first grant that structured today’s Ohio County Day Treatment Center.
Furthermore, he was a founding member of Ohio County Together We Care. Joe Van was my first supervisor when I was hired as the Director of TWC. He was instrumental in TWC becoming a nationally recognized program, leading to Ohio County being recognized in 2005 as one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People.
Though I and countless volunteers and staff worked together for this achievement, we all attribute the ultimate success to Joe Van. TWC also named their organizational yearly achievement award in his honor. After his retirement in 2002, he stayed active working in Hancock, Breckinridge, and McLean Counties helping them in their Youth Development activities, and still serves on several boards and advisory committees.
“Joe Van stood persistently for the ideas for which he believed and the programs he oversaw, but he made his appeal with grace and a smile.”
— Bro. Larry Embry, former supervisor and colleague
Joe Van met his wife, Sheilia, a former cheerleader, while attending Butler County High School. By all considerations, Sheilia is a spirited person with a great sense of humor. She is two years younger than Joe Van, but they were each other’s first true love. Pat Boone’s song “Love Makes the World Go Around” sums up their life together especially, well, especially since Joe Van reminded her of Pat Boone when she first saw him walking down the hallway in his “bright, white bucks.”
They had four sons: Van, Stan, Mark, and David. If you ever spent any time with Joe Van, you will know Sheilia and the four boys have been, and will always be, his world. All of the boys have been and are successful, ranging from military careers to management positions in large private corporations. The boys have blessed them with 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. But, like many families, they had their own bridges to cross and burdens to bear.
Walking and Thinking
During the time of Joe Van’s rehabilitation because of his stroke, a family member had issues with substance abuse. Joe Van said, “I walked a lot. I walked, and I sometimes thought, ‘Why me?’ Then, I walked more and started thinking more, praying more, when I realized it all comes down to a spiritual thing which is, ‘Where is a man’s heart?’ If it is with God, then everything else is temporary. I had to separate the ‘permanent’ from the ‘temporary’ and focus on what I could change. I couldn’t change a person’s attitude, personality, or habits, but I could control how I responded to that person. People are more important than temporary things.”
There really are words to adequately describe Joe Van. He still visits his old family farm he hopes will stay in the family for generations to come. The farm, I think, reminds him we are all merely creations of clay, water, and air. Joe Van is the most forgiving person I know. Upon more than one occasion, he reminded me “we are all human, fallible people.”
I asked Joe Van what he hoped his legacy would be. He chose his words carefully, thoughtfully, and diligently and said, “When Sheilia and I first married, we promised to put God first, our marriage and family second, and my job third. I have tried my best to keep that promise. Life is a puzzle with many pieces in a great big mold; but, if you put the first three in the right order, in the right place, the other pieces will fit together just fine.”
One time in Colorado Springs, on a Sunday Morning, Joe Van walked into our hotel room with a bottle of grape juice and tortillas. I looked at him funny and wondered what was he doing. He said, “We are not at home; we are not at church; but we can still worship. We are going to have Communion.” And we did.
About a year before I took on the extra duties of Joe Van’s job, I was talking to Debbie Gillstrap, a Youth Service Center Director at the time. I told her, “I am worried that I’m not prepared to take his place.” She replied, “Don’t you see James, he’s been training you since 1998?” I guess I didn’t see it, but she was right.
Most people have a few Bible verses they cling to. One of mine is: The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)
I have three men in my life that I know fit this description: my dad, Jimmy; my father-in-law, Les Johnson; and my mentor and friend, Joe Van. Once, Joe Van and I were standing on the 11th floor of a hotel in Minneapolis overlooking the Five Corners. He looked at me and said, “Did you ever think two country boys like me and you would have a view like this?” No, Joe Van, I didn’t; but we did.
“I’ve had Mr. Roberts as a teacher, a supervisor, and always as a friend for the past 50 years. He has garnered respect from students and colleagues alike. He taught others to respect themselves. He’s a believer in collaboration and assured that everyone at the table had a right for their voice to be heard, and their opinion to be taken seriously. I have been blessed to have had him in my life. He truly is one in a million.”
—Debbie Gillstrap, student and staff member
James, a native Tennessean, has lived in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, for nearly 26 years. James spent the first part of his life living and working on a small farm and later working in construction. In 1993, a construction accident forced a change in his career. Since 1997, James has worked in the court system, as the supervisor for social services and Together We Care Director of Ohio County Schools, as executive director of the International Center of Kentucky, and management in the private sector. He returned to the Ohio County Schools in 2016 and works there today. He has worked with groups in several states and three countries in matters relating to family, youth and immigration/refugees, and has worked in Frankfort and in Washington, D.C., nearly 15 years, advocating for the same. James is a graduate of University of Louisville and Brescia, where he is a member of the Brescia Alumni Hall of Fame. He is married to Sandy Johnson Robinson. They have three children: Ashley Robinson Coleman (Atticus and grandson Asa); Cody Robinson (and wife Christy Luttrell Robinson); Thad Robinson (and Melinda Phelps).