Mary Thelma Roberts, the retired head of housekeeping at Towson University who began working at 14 to help support her family, died of kidney failure Dec. 14 at her Towson home. She was 97.
She was born in Mary Thelma Kraus in Baltimore on March 4, 1913, the day of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. She lived on Broadway with her family and attended the old St. Paul's Parochial School. After her father sought work as a plumber in Florida during the 1920s real estate boom, she lived there for several years. She often told family members that while walking to school, she would meet an elderly man who handed her a dime. He was billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who lived in West Palm Beach.
She celebrated her 14th birthday on the trip home to Baltimore. Her parents told her she would have to leave school and begin work to help with family finances after her father's plumbing business failed. She related that she gave up hope of becoming a Johns Hopkins Hospital nurse.
She and her sister found jobs at the old Panzer pickle factory in East Baltimore. They would arrive home, family members said, with their arms stained yellow up to the elbows from the pickling brine and spices they handled. They later worked at Archer's Laundry, where she sat in the window ironing handkerchiefs on a mangle.
Mrs. Roberts recalled that she was walking down Greenmount Avenue when she met her future husband, Raymond Roberts, who had been to a church social at St. John's Episcopal Church. They eloped to Ellicott City when she was 16 and he was 17. The wedding took place just weeks before the stock market crash of 1929. She raised her family in a Kirk Avenue rowhouse.
"When Pearl Harbor came, my mother began working at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Middle River. She was literally a 'Rosie the Riveter' and riveted bolts into airplane wings," said a daughter, Sandra Roberts of Towson.
"After my father was drafted, my mother was left at home with three children and ration cards. Because of the housing shortage, she rented out the upstairs to a young Navy man and his wife and the downstairs to her sister, Doris, and her son, John. My mother often spoke of the difficulty of those years, living through the Depression and World War II," her daughter said.
After the war, she and her husband became the caretakers of the old St. Peter's College, a seminary run by the Roman Catholic Paulist Fathers near Catonsville.
"Those were absolutely golden years for them. Dad managed the grounds and maintenance crews, and Mom managed the kitchen and cleaning crews," said her daughter. "She was famous for her excellent cooking and baking. Her hot milk-chocolate cake was a favorite."
In the 1950s, after leaving Catonsville and moving to Towson, Mrs. Roberts decided to return to school and earned her high school equivalency certificate. She worked first in a clerical position at Towson Stationer's and later at Union Memorial Hospital's dietary department.
She sought employment with the state of Maryland and took aptitude tests. She won a job as head of housekeeping at Towson University. She supervised a staff of 20 and oversaw the maintenance of campus buildings and dormitories. She remained there for nearly 20 years and retired in 1976.
In retirement, she and her husband traveled. She also began collecting dolls and decorating dollhouses for her grandchildren.
"She liked to keep her hands busy. She was creative and imaginative, and made all sorts of things for the dollhouses, from furniture, rugs, curtains, food for the tables and paintings for the walls," her daughter said. "My mother was one of those women of her era that had an endless supply of energy. Her house was pristine, her garden was spectacular, the cooking was superb, the clothing all ironed and neatly folded."
Mrs. Roberts drove herself on errands until she was 95 and gave up her Oldsmobile only when it developed engine trouble.
A Mass was offered Saturday at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson, where she was an active member.
In addition to her daughter, survivors include two sons, William E. Roberts and Raymond E. Roberts of Naples, Fla.; another daughter, Selena M. Weiss of New Freedom, Pa.; a brother, John R. Kraus of Seminole, Fla.; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. Her husband of 67 years died in 1996.