Roberta Wilson

professor emerita of exercise science, 1977-2006

Roberta Wilson’s husband, longtime Puget Sound track coach Joe Peyton ’67, passed away three and a half years ago. When she talks about him, though, it’s as if she just lost him. She recalls the friendship of Puget Sound colleagues who sat vigil at their home during Joe’s last days and nights. She remembers how more than 200 students and alumni—many of them athletes—worked their way through tightened military security to visit Joe at Madigan Medical Center during the days immediately following his diagnosis with brain cancer.

His was a large presence.

“He saw the bright side of every situation,” she says. “He knew everyone. Everywhere we went, whether we were walking along Ruston Way or across the country in Washington, D.C., we ran into people Joe knew. And if Joe knew you, you were a friend. His circle was enormous.”

After he died in July 2003, Roberta returned to Puget Sound to teach students about physiology and nutrition. She had dinner with old friends. She jogged the routes she’d run for years. Everything was the same, but nothing was the same.

“A few months after Joe’s death, I was in my car when Lee Ann Womack’s song ‘I Hope You Dance’ came on. We’d played it at Joe’s funeral, and the lyrics really hit me:”

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance.

“I just sat there and bawled for the longest time. And then I walked into the house and picked up the mail and found letters from Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders. And that’s when it hit me: maybe working with one of these groups was my ‘dancing.’”

Roberta began researching her options. She’d been intrigued by the Peace Corps since she was a kid. She drove to Seattle to attend an information session for potential Peace Corps volunteers over age 50.

“The more I learned, the more it seemed like a great way for me to give back and stretch and grow, all at the same time,” Roberta says. She filled out applications and went through interviews. Yes, Peace Corps officials decided, she’d make a terrific volunteer.

So, after 29 years on the faculty, she retired in December 2005. Big changes lie ahead, but change is something Roberta grew accustomed to during her career.

Fresh out of UCLA, Roberta headed to Rockford (Illinois) College. She taught there four years before being drawn to Puget Sound.

“Rockford is one of those places that’s incredibly hot and humid in the summer and bitter cold in the winter,” she says. “When I got to Tacoma, I thought, ‘Where has this place been all my life?’ It was beautiful, the weather was moderate, people were kind, and I immediately felt at home here.”

During those early days at Puget Sound, Roberta worked in the physical education department (the predecessor to exercise science). The department was divided, with men’s PE in Memorial Fieldhouse and women’s physical education in Warner Gym.

“We were a little like second-class citizens,” she says. “I coached volleyball, and I always joked that I needed miners’ caps for my players because the lighting in Warner was so horrible. The gym had open rafters and the ball was forever getting hit up there. It was a less-than-ideal place to play.”

In 1980 women’s physical education moved to the fieldhouse with the rest of the department.

“There was still resistance from some of the men’s coaches, but that began to wear away over time,” she says. “Things weren’t exactly equitable, but space and budgets were much, much improved.”

During the next two decades, the department focus changed from a teaching-track program to preparing students for graduate studies in the health sciences. Puget Sound was evolving from a regional college to one with a world-class curriculum and faculty. Roberta responded to those changes by beginning her doctoral studies in 1982 at the University of Southern California.

“I knew I didn’t want to coach forever, and I loved physiology, so it made sense to pursue that,” she says. Roberta moved to Los Angeles for the first 15 months of her academic program, taking classes and conducting research; she returned to Puget Sound to teach and received her doctorate in 1989.

“The students and my colleagues—especially [faculty members] Heidi Orloff and Tom Wells—made my time at Puget Sound really enjoyable,” she says. “Were there times when we wanted to pull our hair out? Did we work ourselves silly? Yes. Yes. But, overall, the good far, far outweighed any bad. I had a really terrific career. I feel so fortunate for that.”

Orloff says she wasn’t surprised when Roberta called and told her she was thinking about joining the Peace Corps. “It’s a Roberta-thing,” she says. “She’s got the kind of heart that drives her to try to make things better for other people. For her, this is about giving back, but it’s also about learning and growing. How cool is that?”

Roberta told her Peace Corps recruiter she needed 18 months after retirement before heading out to an assignment. She’s spending the time traveling, running, doing yoga, meditating, and otherwise regaining her energy.

“Reading and studying what I want to read and study has been amazing,” she says. “I’m reading things that are more spiritual and metaphysical. I’m not proud to admit I’d never read the Bible before, but that’s something I’m starting to do now. I have Atlases out and I’m finding these cities that are mentioned, and I wake up every day anxious to learn something new.”

She’s also eating lunch. With friends. In restaurants and coffee shops.

“I tell people that and they’re, like, ‘So?’ But at UPS, our staff was stretched so thin that, if we actually ate lunch, we did it at our desks while reading or talking on the phone. I don’t think I could do it everyday, but I’m learning that lunch with friends can be pretty enjoyable.”

Meanwhile, her recruiter has sent her three initial Peace Corps assignments to consider: one working with AIDS education in Africa, another teaching science in Africa, and a third creating graduate-level curriculum in health education in the Pacific Islands. She may ask to be nominated for one of these, or she may wait. She’s not certain.

What she does know, is that this new path is the right path.

“I’ve had an absolutely blessed life. I know this will stretch me in ways I can’t even imagine, but that’s exhilarating to me.

“Everybody is excited that I’m doing this,” she says. “And in my heart I know Joe is up there saying, ‘You go girl!’ He’d be happy for me. He’d be really happy I found a way to ‘dance.’”

— Mary Boone

Alumni can e-mail Roberta at rwilson@pugetsound.edu.