Opelika remembers leader, legend Dr. Don Roberts

By Rebekah Martin and Morgan Bryce

Opelika said goodbye to its resident bow-tie wearing ‘foodie’  earlier this week. Don Roberts passed away Sept. 4 after a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer.

An avid Auburn fan, Roberts earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the university. He then went to work on what would become his life’s passion: education.

Roberts first worked in Auburn City Schools and Benjamin-Russell High School in Alexander City before spending nine years as the principal of Opelika High School. After a brief stint in Harris County, Ga., Roberts returned to Lee County and spent the remainder of his career at Auburn’s Lee-Scott Academy as headmaster.

A family man, Roberts married his wife of 44 years, Lorna on July 28, 1973. Don and Lorna have two children, Michael (Nicole) and Allyson (Brian), and four grandchildren, Austin, Luke, Livi and Charli.

Battle with cancer

Roberts was initially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2016.

Roberts fought the disease with a smile, often posting health updates on social media.   On Aug. 16 Roberts shared that his latest CT scans were “disappointing.” Nearly a thousand comments were left expressing their love, prayers and support.

Dining with Don

A self-proclaimed “foodie,” Roberts enjoyed spending his retirement years traveling and featuring new restaurants on his blog DiningwithDon.com and his social media accounts. Roberts garnered more than 3,000 ‘likes’ and followers between Facebook and Instagram.

Don and Lorna were frequent patrons of Cafe 123 in downtown Opelika. So frequent that owner John Robert Wood dedicated a booth to the couple.
“He always sat at the same booth, and he wanted that last booth so that he could see the room … and that was just his booth … He had a love for food that you don’t see too many people have,” head chef Eron Bass said. “We’ve been in business for 12 years, and he literally was here from day one. He loved our food, and he loved us … people now will ask for booth 5, people who knew Don will ask to sit there now.”
Saying goodbye

On Sept. 4, after news of his death spread, hundreds of people shared memories and tributes online.

“For a minute I thought Don Roberts just really liked me and thought I was great. But then I learned he made everyone feel that way,” Abraham Poythress wrote on Facebook. “What an incredible man to leave such a legacy of God’s love.”

“Don Roberts was a true man of God that loved his family dearly and loved everyone he knew,” Shayla Mills Battle wrote. “Such a humble man that will truly be missed by this community.”

“My life is so much better having known Don Roberts,” Doug Baker echoed.

Lasting legacy

Roberts interviewed with the Observer in July 2015 and announced his retirement from Lee-Scott. Roberts spoke about his passion and years as an educator.

“I have always felt that my strength was dealing with people and working with people, and that has been the theme of my entire career,” Roberts said in the previously published article. “I believe so much in education, and I think there is nothing more powerful than a teacher. They impact the lives of people they touch, both positively and negatively.”

Current Lee-Scott Academy headmaster Stan Cox said Roberts’s legacy will be one of care and compassion for his staff and students at LSA. “That’s the most compelling thing about Don … that he got to know people individually, and wanted the best, and encouraged them no matter what,” Cox said. “He was always looking for what he could do to help somebody else, and that’s the thing that I’ll take away from Don: to always offer and be a help to somebody.”
Within hours of Roberts’s passing, his Facebook page was flooded with pictures of friends and former students sporting colorful bow ties in his honor. “…that was something we wanted to do to honor his memory and his contributions to the school and to us as individuals,” Cox said.
Donning a paisley-patterned bow tie, Craig Kennedy wrote the world has lost a mentor and example in Don Roberts. “I believe in my heart of hearts that he was the most respected man I have ever met,” Kennedy’s message read.

Roberts’s son Michael expressed the family’s gratitude for the outpouring of support shown by their community. “All of your thoughts and prayers have been appreciated. People keep asking what they can do. Fortunately, we are well covered by family, friends, and church, and our needs are met. Here is what you can do. Live your life with passion. Love your God. Love your family. Work hard. Treat everyone with respect. Focus on things that matter. In short, live your life like my dad lived his. There is no finer gift that you could give to us than to leave this world a better place than you found it.” Michael ended his message with an uplifting reminder from the book of John. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” -John 16:33

A memorial service will be held at Church of the Highlands in Auburn tomorrow at 11 a.m.

Editor’s Note: In the original article, Eron Bass was listed as the owner of Cafe 123. Bass is the head chef. The owner is John Robert Wood. We regret the error.