A Foundation Laid, A Passion Pursued
“Every time you are on the air and every time you write a story, consider it an audition because you never know who is watching.” This piece of advice is merely a small fraction of the knowledge Sally-Ann Roberts ’74, ‘76, shared with students on the Hattiesburg campus of The University of Southern Mississippi Nov. 14, when she visited Southern Hall to accept a plaque given in honor of her entrance into the elite ranks of the Mass Communication and Journalism Hall of Fame.
Sally-Ann began her journalism and broadcasting career at Hattiesburg’s own, WDAM-TV. While working every other weekend as an anchor and a weathercaster, one evening upon returning to her Hardy Street apartment, she received a phone call from the news director at WWL-TV in New Orleans. He had caught wind of Sally-Ann from an anchor that was passing through the Pine Belt, who had rented a hotel room instead of finishing her trek to New Orleans and saw Sally-Ann broadcasting the local news. “That anchor did not know me, but she decided to do me a favor,” shared Sally-Ann. “She knew of a job opening at WWL-TV and told the news director about me. Every time you work on something, just give it your best. You just never know who is watching.”
Sally-Ann’s career at WWL-TV began in 1977 as a City Hall reporter. Her work has earned her first place awards in journalistic excellence from the Press Club of New Orleans, Louisiana Associated Press, Radio and Television News Directors Association and the New Orleans chapter of Women in Communications, in addition to being part of the reporting team that earned WWL-TV the coveted Edward R. Murrow Award for late-breaking news. Her community involvement, as well as the recognition she has received not only from the city of New Orleans but also on a national level, is vast, yet she does not take full credit for any of these accomplishments, attributing any success she may have achieved in her more than 30-year career to God, whom she gives all honor, glory and praise.
For Sally-Ann her faith has been a journey. She believes that if she did not know God was real before everything hit and fell apart in her life after her 25th wedding anniversary, she would not be where she is today. After her first husband passed away just seven months after his diagnosis with colon cancer, her father passed away in his sleep and Hurricane Katrina made landfall, devastating her hometown of Pass Christian, Miss., and the surrounding areas. “If you want a pity party around here, you have to stand in line,” teased Sally-Ann.
Recently the broadcaster was able to share a personal story and family obstacle on air, a bit she talked through with her student audience. “As Air Force brats, my brother Butch, sisters Robin and Dorothy and I, traveled to many diverse places around the world, but the journey we embarked upon this year was unlike any this family has ever experienced,” shared Sally-Ann. “The baby sister I had watched grow from a child into a strong courageous women who beat breast cancer in 2007 was now, five years later, dealing with an illness I had never heard of, myelodysplastic syndrome--pre-leukemia. But the doctors were hopeful that if Robin could find a genetic match for a bone marrow transplant, she could be cured. I was declared a perfect match, and I prayed my body would be able to produce.”
The baby sister she is referring to is Robin Roberts, co-host of Good Morning America, and her battle with myelodysplastic syndrome has made national news, regularly documented by ABC News and shared on air by Sally-Ann and WWL-TV.
After Sally-Ann’s stem cells were collected, once again, tragedy struck. The Roberts siblings lost their mother. Sally-Ann and Robin managed to get home in the wake of Hurricane Isaac to be with their mother just before she died. “Within days of the funeral, Robin began intense chemotherapy to wipe out her immune system. yet she remained positive,” continued Sally-Ann. “Dorothy and I were there when doctor Dr. Sergio Giralt injected the vile of my stem cells into our sister Robin, and we celebrated.”
Their celebration continued, as a month later Robin was released from the hospital. “Weeping as she felt the breeze on her face, the ride home later was filled with wonder of sights most take for granted,” shares Sally-Ann as she concluded her story. “Finally Robin is home at last. The journey is not yet over, but hopefully, prayerfully, the best is yet to come.”
When asked how it feels to be an angel for Robin, Sally-Ann jokes, “Robin will tell you, I’m not an angel!” The broadcaster then explains that Robin would do the same for her as others would do this for their sisters. “What I have done, anybody would do,” shared Sally-Ann humbly. “We would do this for our loved ones. We would do this for strangers. I am no angel. I am no hero. I’m just a sister who wants my sister to be well.”
Both sisters, in addition to the Roberts family as a whole, have been advocates for bone marrow donor testing. “The thing I love about Robin is she is practicing what my mother taught her,” shared Sally-Ann. “Your mess is your message.”
Robin realized that while she and Sally-Ann are a perfect match, unfortunately only 30% of people who need a bone marrow match in this country can find that match in their family. Most depend on the national marrow donor registry. With a swab of the mouth, a person is entered into the registry. “The wonderful thing is that since Robin has made her battle known and taped a public service announcement for the national bone marrow registry, Perfect Match, more than 44,000 Americans have answered the call,” explained Sally-Ann.
By telling her story and revealing lessons and knowledge she has gained since her time at Southern Miss came to a close, this member of the Alumni Hall of Fame is a testament as to what you can become after receiving an education at this University. The foundation she gained from her time at Southern Miss allowed her to pursue her passion, and in pursuing that passion, she has been able to serve her community as a journalist and share her family’s story, impacting millions of people around the world.
To the students sitting where Sally-Ann sat many years ago, she addressed them by saying, “This field has to be your passion. If you’ve got that fire in your belly, there is no way anything is going to stop you. You will go where you need to go. You will knock on doors that you need to knock on until you get in. You have the privilege of being at Southern Miss, and there are many people that have preceded you that are doing quite well because of the foundation they received right here at this University.”
Sally-Ann left the students with the best advice she had ever received, advice that came from her late mother. “Pray. In all things pray. Prepare. Know your news and learn as much as you can. And lastly, have the courage to proceed.”
To find out how you can answer the call to be a bone marrow donor, visit bethematch.org.