by Glenn Tschimpke
When Kathleen Roberts began working for the City as a part-time high school student in the late 1960s, consolidated Jacksonville was still in its early, awkward stages of metamorphosis. Those were the days before the pervasive use of computers, fax machines, cell phones and even modern plumbing. OK, not the plumbing part, but it’s been a long time. Thirty-three years long. It’s time for a break.
“I’m going to have some play time, some fun time and for the first time in my life, some ‘me’ time,” said Roberts, currently the assistant chief of legislative services.“ It’s been fun but I think the old dog just gets tired of learning new tricks all the time.”
At 49, Roberts is young for an imminent retiree. Then again, she started working for Duval Medical Center at 16 on a work program through Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. University Hospital was yet to be built. Manual typewriters were still the office norm.
“I kept going like this in the air when there was nothing there when we went to electric,” she said taking a swipe in the air at an imaginary typewriter return lever.
Changes in technology and Roberts’ embrace of those changes would be the focus of her career for 27 years. After bouncing from department to department within the City — she says she’s been in all of them at least once — she landed in Legislative Services 29 years ago. Jacksonville’s public records were in shambles.
“Back in August 1975, [former Council secretary] Rex Drane came to me and said, ‘People keep asking me about all these old records and files but nobody knows where anything is anymore. In your spare time [an hour later after we stopped laughing] if you can do whatever you can to get the records together.’ So I did. It took me 27 years.”
The hot technology in those days was microfilm. Roberts sifted through countless pages of minutes from long forgotten Council committee meetings, ordinances and resolutions from the 19th Century, threw out what she could and put what she needed to on microfilm. The next step, she says, is transferring each document to computer image. But that’s a story for her successor.
Three decades of civil service has been mostly positive for Roberts — mostly. In the early days, she worked with the City’s Housing and Urban Development department. A promotion ushered her to bigger and better prospects at the Clerk of Courts office in the Duval County Courthouse.
“I hated it,” she said. “ I took a demotion and went back to HUD.”
“It was boring and I kept getting lost in the courthouse. It’s creepy over there. It’s like a tomb. It gives you the shivers. I would get lost every time. They had you working in a vault, so if there was a panic, the vault doors would close. I was petrified of being stuck in that vault. I used to say I’m going to keep my eye on that door. If that thing starts closing, I’m going to beeline right through it.”
Her return to HUD was short lived. October 1, 1973 — Consolidation Day — Roberts transferred to Legislative Services where she would spend the rest of her career. Over the years, she’s seen her share of Council drama. The juicy stuff, involving drunken Council members and flapping toupees, she keeps to herself to protect the guilty.
“Jake Godbold, when he was a Councilman — he’ll deny this — would fall asleep in Council meetings. He would lean back in his chair. He fell over backward one time. It scared the death out of us. He got up real quick and said the chair broke,” she said.
Despite the fiery politics surrounding the Council presidency election every year, Roberts attests the City Council isn’t what it used to be.
“I will say the Council is more sedate in many ways,” she said. “Things have been a lot more calm. They’re a lot more professional. They used to get very loud and boisterous. I’ve been to meetings where we knew there were people in the audience with guns and police in street clothes were watching them. I used to always say, ‘If I hear a car backfire, the next thing you’ll see is Kathleen’s butt sticking out from under the table because I will hit the deck so fast.’”
It is with some sadness that Roberts leaves the City where she worked the greater part of her life. Although her last day at work is Aug. 2, she has enough vacation on the books to last until next March. She’ll spend that time taking care of her grandchildren, get her house back in order and taking a much needed rest. Some time next spring, if she feels like it, she’ll get back in the job market. Until then, she’s on