By Keysha Drexel
At a time when most of his peers are content to slow down and reflect on their lives, a Vestavia Hills man is proving that learning is a lifelong adventure that never stops.
David Roberts IV, 70, retired from teaching philosophy and ethics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2001, but that doesn’t mean he’s still not a familiar face on campus.
“I have retired only to go to the other side of the lectern,” Roberts said. ‘I am a studio art major at UAB specializing in printmaking. The back cover of my book is a print I made this semester.”
That’s right—his book.
Not only is Roberts an accomplished professor and student artist, the Mountain Brook native is also an author.
Roberts held a book signing for his debut novel, “Becoming Twigo,” at Little Professor Book Center in Homewood earlier this month.
“When I retired, I didn’t just want to go home and have my life come to a standstill all of a sudden,” Roberts said. “It’s been vastly overused, but there is some truth in YOLO, or you only live once. We really should savor every moment of life and every chance to learn something new.”
Roberts’ love affair with learning began when he was a student at Crestline Elementary School.
“I’m a hometown boy. I grew up in Crestline on Elm Street, and I think I have always loved being a student,” he said.
When he was in the eighth grade, Roberts was in a car accident that left him in a coma for four days and left a friend of his paralyzed.
“I had severe head injuries, and my capacities were reduced back to those of an 8 year old,” Roberts said. “I remember that summer, I was playing with model toys like a small child and I looked up and my mother was crying, and that’s when I realized the extent of what had happened to me.”
Roberts said he worked hard to recover the skills he had lost because of his head injuries, and by that fall, he was ready to enroll at Indian Springs School.
Because of his history of severe head injuries, playing sports at school was too risky, he said.
“That’s where I got the taste of being the other, the person who is an outsider in some way, and I drew on that experience to write ‘Becoming Twigo,’ which is all about that feeling and the effects of bullying,” he said.
Self-published by Roberts in April, “Becoming Twigo” is the story of a 15-year-old girl who struggles to adjust to life in a new school where money rules and where some of the meanest bullies are the cheerleaders. The story’s main character discovers that one of the girls bullying her is a lesbian.
“While at UAB, I taught, among other courses, ethics. I was always interested in discrimination, especially against women and gays. Much of the novel concentrates on aspects of bullying and harassment of them,” Roberts said.
But even before he taught ethics, Roberts said he learned firsthand what bullying can do to teens.
“Bullying is a cross between ridicule and criticism, and it can really change a person,” he said. “You may not remember a lot of things as the years pass, but you will always remember how people make you feel.”
After graduating from Indian Springs School, Roberts enrolled as a pre-med student at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
“Disney World wasn’t in that area at the time. Back then, it was just one big orange grove,” he said.
Roberts said his time as a pre-med student was short in part because he has problems seeing some colors.
“I flunked qualitative chemistry. It’s where you run a lot of tests that are based on colors and I’m slightly colorblind, so I had such a rough time with that class,” Roberts said. “That’s when I decided to change my major to psychology.”
While pursuing his undergraduate degree at Rollins College, Roberts took a few art classes.
“I would hurry and get all of my work done for my psychology and other classes so that I could get to the studio and have as much time in there as possible,” Roberts said.
Roberts said some of his fondest memories from his undergraduate days—the first time around—are of the nights he spent in the art studio at Rollins College.
“It was the smell and the feel of the place that I loved so much,” he said. “It was the beauty of the things I saw that were in progress, that were evolving from an idea in a student’s mind into a work of art.”
Roberts said time would slip away as he worked on his own art projects and watched those of his peers take shape in the studio.
“I saw people struggling with their pieces one night, and then the next night I would come into the studio and I would suddenly see what they were working toward,” he said. “And when it was finished, I would get to see how they hit that artistic sweet spot where everything came together. It was inspiring.”
Art wasn’t Roberts’ only creative outlet during his time at Rollins College.
“I earned pocket money in college by playing rock and roll,” he said. “I played electric bass, and I still do. I get together with a bunch of old-timers, and we rock out and play at different spots around the Birmingham area. We are all members of the Magic City Blues Society. It’s amazing that when we all get together, it still works and it’s a really good time.”
Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rollins College and then continued his education at Emory University.
While he had initially planned to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, Roberts said the things he was naturally interested in studying began to point him in another new direction.
“I was interested in the nature of beliefs and how they are learned,” Roberts said. “For example, how does a 4 or 5-year-old child come to believe that Santa comes down the chimney with all those presents? Those kinds of questions were the ones I wanted answers to at that time.”
Roberts said he found his curiosity drawn to ideas and feelings the philosophy students were talking about and grew less and less excited about the discussions going on in his psychology courses.
“In the experimental psychology department, I ran head-on into these rabid behaviorists, and they were oriented to operational definitions. They didn’t want to talk about ideas and feelings,” he said. “So I walked across the quadrangle to the philosophy department where they were dealing with the things I wanted to talk about at that time.”
Roberts earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy from Emory University. He came to Birmingham to take a job at UAB in the early 1970s.
“Even back then, it was known that if you wanted to be a doctor, UAB was the place to go,” Roberts said. “At that time, the study of medical ethics was very new, believe it or not.”
Roberts worked in several roles during his tenure at UAB, both as a professor and administrator. But just because he was the one giving the lectures didn’t mean he wasn’t learning, he said.
Roberts’ interest in art was renewed almost by chance one evening when we he went to pick up his daughter from her art class at Space One Eleven.
“I came to pick up my daughter one day and I was a little early, so I walked inside and I saw all these children so excited about painting and drawing and creating, and it was wonderful,” he said.
The next time he came to pick up his daughter from art classes, Roberts said he purposely arrived a little early so he could look closely at the students’ work.
“They had some butcher paper set up on a table there, and while I was waiting, I just started drawing on the paper, sketching a bit,” Roberts said. “Then Anne Arrasmith, one of the founders of Space One Eleven, came over and looked at what I was drawing. We struck up a conversation, and she started offering me art tips.”
Pretty soon, Roberts was showing up to retrieve his daughter from her art class 20 or 30 minutes before the class ended.
“I was getting there so early, it was like I was pushing the kids out of the way so I could draw and paint,” Roberts said. “At one point, Anne said, ‘OK, Dave. We have just started adult art classes and you need to sign up,’ so I did and I took lessons from her for many years.”
After he retired, Roberts said, he almost immediately enrolled as an art student at UAB.
“I wanted to keep learning, to branch out into different areas of art that I hadn’t tried before and see what I could discover,” he said. “I’ve taken classes in sculpture, painting and basically, all of the art courses except for graphic design.”
And while Roberts said he has relished learning more about each medium, he said that so far, printmaking has been his favorite.
“Something just clicked when I started taking the printmaking classes,” Roberts said. “In printmaking, you can do a lot of good work in black and white, which makes it a perfect medium for me because of the trouble I have with seeing some colors.”
Roberts used his new printmaking skills to create a design for the back cover of “Becoming Twigo,” a book he started writing about three years ago.
“I took a fiction writing class from an old friend I had worked with at UAB, and something very important that he taught me was that to be a good writer, you have to listen,” Roberts said. “The idea for the book actually came from a conversation I heard. I listened, and what I heard became the lead plot underlying the whole book.”
While Roberts said he hopes that readers embrace “Becoming Twigo” because of the important message on bullying it contains, he said he’s not content to stop at just one book–or one vocation.
“I have several projects I’m working on now–in art, in writing, in music–and I’m looking forward to all of them,” Roberts said. “There are still plenty of chances for this old dog to learn a few new tricks.”