How did it get there?
It was the early 1960s. Sam Roberts and his mother had walked from their home on Rose Avenue to South Salina Street to buy a new pair of shoes and go to the movies. (There were lots of theaters in downtown Syracuse in those days.)
After the movie, they decided to walk to his older sister’s house on Frisbie Court. Roberts ran ahead, cut across a field where the hospital now stands, and sunk into the mud of the construction site. When he pulled out his foot, the shoe was gone.
“I told you not to do that,” was his mother’s only response.
They walked quietly the rest of the way — Roberts with one new shoe and one bare foot.
Ten years later, Roberts was a teenager with new connections to Upstate, as a patient in the new hospital, and as a student.
He had surgery to remove papillomas from his vocal cords, exacerbated by second-hand smoke. (In those days, half of all adults were smokers.)
“It was summer, and I’d just learned to drive,” Roberts laments. “I lived with a tracheotomy for a year.”
That was a difficult time, but Roberts is grateful for his surgeon’s skill and the ultimate success of the operation.
The assemblymember has much fonder memories of the time he was a student in the Cooperative College Center program affiliated with Upstate Medical University.
“It was a college prep program, and it gave us access,” explains Roberts. “We could study at the Health Sciences Library. We got to know lots of doctors and scientists at the medical school. We learned the place. We felt like we belonged.”
They worked, and they had fun.
“We also swam at the campus activities building,” he smiles, “and ate hamburgers in the cafeteria.”
As assemblymember, Roberts’ connection to Upstate remains strong. He attends Upstate events — such as the July 2011 ceremony marking the merger of Upstate and Community hospitals — and meets with Upstate officials, both in Syracuse and at the state capitol in Albany.
“Elected officials are supposed to represent their constituencies and the lucky people in Sam’s district would have to go a long way to find a better fit,” notes Dan Hurley, assistant vice president of Government and Community Relations at Upstate. “I find out something new about the history of our campus every time I talk to Sam. He even predates Route 81!”
How else does Roberts connect with Upstate?
This spring, Roberts earmarked funds to preserve the building of the former AME Zion church, which sits one block south of the CNY Biotech Accelerator. In addition to being located near the new SUNY research facility, the church is part of the legacy of Upstate graduate Sarah Loguen MD, class of 1876. (Her father was the bishop of the AME Zion Church; she was the first African American to graduate from the College of Medicine, and one of the first African-American woman doctors.)
Roberts maintains his ties to the Syracuse community in which he was raised. Recently, he was the subject of a living history project, sponsored by the Masons and held at Danforth Middle School. During his interview with a student, Roberts said, “(It’s) not about being a first African-American Assemblyman for Central New York. It’s about doing your job…it’s about representing everyone.”