Roberts was actively involved
as a member and leader in
the MTA and the National
Education Association for
nearly five decades as both
a teacher and a teaching
principal. And after retiring in
1984, she continued to serve
the education profession for
S he was an inspiration, a woman of great wisdom and great wit,” said one close friend. She was “kind and warm and
inclusive,” said another.
Longtime friends of Kathleen Roberts struggled
recently to put into words what the much-loved
former MTA president — who died Sept. 24 at the
age of 103 — meant to them as a mentor, friend and
fellow union activist.
At the MTA, Roberts’ name was synonymous
with persistence, dedication and volunteerism.
Her love of public education — combined with
her generous spirit, optimistic outlook and strong
conviction that educators should receive the pay,
recognition and respect they deserve — was a natural
fit with being a union leader.
Roberts was born Kathleen Ryan in Dartmouth,
Massachusetts, on Sept. 14, 1914, and was raised
in Wellesley. She decided she wanted to become
a teacher when she was still very young, and she
would often tutor neighborhood children who were
struggling with their homework.
She received her bachelor’s degree in education
from Framingham State College in 1937 and a
master’s degree in education from Boston University
Her first professional teaching job began soon
after her graduation from Framingham State, during
the Great Depression. Roberts was the only teacher in
a one-room schoolhouse in Milton, Vermont, where
she taught all eight grades and was paid $14 a week.
She was married and widowed twice. Her
first husband, James C. Comiskey, was head of the
business department at New Bedford High School.
Her second husband, Sydney Cleland Roberts, was
head of the social studies department at Lawrence
High School in Falmouth and a former MTA
Roberts was actively involved as a member
and leader in the MTA and the National Education
Association for nearly five decades as both a teacher
and a teaching principal. And after retiring in 1984,
she continued to serve the education profession for
Roberts was part of a group that organized
NEA-Retired in 1983. In 2003, she was honored with
the NEA-Retired Distinguished Service Award.
In 1992, Roberts received an MTA Human and
Civil Rights Award. In 2010, the Human Relations
Committee renamed the award — which recognizes
individuals and organizations for volunteerism and
leadership — in her honor.
Roberts was a delegate more than 75 times to
the MTA Annual Meeting and more than 60 times to
the NEA Representative Assembly.
In addition, she was a member of numerous
MTA and NEA committees and task forces.
Until earlier this year, she served as co-chair of
the MTA Retired Members Committee with another
longtime friend, Richard Liston.
“Kay was just so involved in whatever was
needed, and she was not afraid to change things
and move on,” Liston recalled. “She always had in
her heart what was best for educators, students and
the MTA. She was just absolutely lovely to work
Almost all of Roberts’ years as a teacher and
teaching principal were spent in Raynham and
Dartmouth, where she served her local associations
as president and vice president.
Roberts was elected MTA president in 1971,
when the association had about 46,000 members.
After her term as MTA president, Roberts was
elected to the NEA Board as a director from
Roberts mentored countless women and
minority educators who had not yet found their
Louise Gaskins, a longtime MTA activist who
served as the association’s first minority NEA
director in the mid-1970s, said she will never forget
how touched she was when Roberts reached out to
ask her to take on leadership roles.
When Gaskins became an NEA director in 1976,
she joined Roberts and the other MTA NEA directors
in Washington, D.C.
“Kay just showed me the way,” Gaskins said.
“She was kind and warm and inclusive. She just put
her arm around me and included me in everything.
Roberts’ niece, Catherine Bryant, agreed, adding
that her aunt’s natural empathy for those being
discriminated against was heightened by her early
“She started teaching when she graduated from
college in 1937, when there was a great deal of
discrimination and prejudice against women and
ethnic minorities,” Bryant said. “Starting her career
in that environment, it was really important to her to
work to change things.”
W hen Roberts was first married, she was forced to become a permanent substitute because married women were not
allowed to be teachers, Bryant noted.
“That meant she got to do the exact same job
while having her pay and benefits cut,” she said.
“Being in the MTA allowed her to fight to level the
But Bryant said that Roberts felt she received
even more in return than she gave to the association.
At left is an official portrait of Kathleen Roberts — then Kathleen Comiskey — during her
1971-1972 term as MTA president. In the photo at right, taken during the NEA Representative
Assembly in Atlanta in 2013, Roberts was recognized for her 60 years of service as a delegate.