Donna Carr Roberts
Finding the beauty within, expanding the arts on campus and in Peoria
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I was born and spent my early childhood in Akron, Ohio. I enjoyed reading and spent a lot of time acting out parts from my favorite movies. As I got into my teen years, I learned to ski and eventually got a job in the ski shop.
My mother and father were early influences. My dad was handy around the house, and I loved helping him work on the car and make house repairs. Although not a “tomboy,” I really enjoyed doing anything that was not considered “girl stuff.” I hated Home Ec and would have loved to have taken shop class, where you got to do woodworking and play with mechanical things. But that was in the fifties and sixties—shop was only open to boys. Maybe that’s why I’m such a gadget fanatic today.
In those days, few women worked outside the home. I had a stay-at-home mom, but she started a babysitting service to take care of children of mothers who did have outside careers. This was great for me and my brother, giving us more kids to play with. Even though most would consider her a diminutive housewife (she herself thinks she has never done anything extraordinary), she frequently showed personal strength and willfulness that deeply influenced me.
My father didn’t think it was necessary for her to learn to drive a car (again, kind of a “fifties attitude”). But she secretly took driving lessons from a neighbor and proudly laid her new driver’s license on the kitchen table for my dad to see. He never said a word, but I think it earned her a bit of new respect in his eyes. There were other episodes where she stood her ground. She was always sweet and quiet, but determined. I think I learned you can always be a “lady” while getting your point across!
Tell us more about your college years and your early career.
Both my brother and I went to Akron University while living at home. I worked three jobs to pay for school. I joined a sorority and liked most of the young women, but had difficulty with some of the sorority officers who demanded I put more time into the social events. This was tough because I had to work. I believe this was my foundation for appreciating people for their abilities, willingness to work hard, and their kindnesses more than how much money they have.
I skied quite a bit and met Stein Eriksen, a well-known Olympic skier on a ski trip to New York. We became friends and corresponded for several years. I, with a few of my friends, spent the summer of 1969 in Hyannis, [Massachusetts], thinking if I have to work, why not somewhere interesting? I became a bit of a hippie/flower child. I was on Chappaquiddick Island the week before Ted Kennedy’s accident there. Then we heard about a music festival in upper New York, borrowed a car from some friends and drove up there. The music was very good but it was pouring rain, so we left. Yes, that was Woodstock!
That fall my friend Rohit Joshi from India invited a group of us to join him on a trip to see his old music teacher Ravi Shankar at Carnegie Hall. After the concert, we went backstage and met the famous sitar player—a true hippie experience!
I modeled and was on a local department store’s College Fashion Council, then was selected for a national College Fashion Board for a teenage cosmetic company, Bonne Bell, where I did beauty lectures to high school students and helped with promotional events. Akron U didn’t offer the types of courses I wanted, so I left school in my junior year to work full-time for Bonne Bell, being transferred to Indianapolis.
I worked for Bonne Bell as a sales rep and achieved enough success that I was recruited by Estée Lauder. I worked for Estée Lauder first as a sales representative, then as a regional manager, and later on the Executive Resource Committee, frequently spending time in New York working with marketing executives on new programs. After retiring from Estée Lauder in 1989, I worked for Marsh Supermarkets in Indiana as director of corporate affairs, then joined my late husband in his commercial real estate business. I didn’t know much about it, but quickly learned when he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. It was a horrible time.
Not only was I grieving my loss after 30 years of marriage, it was at the beginning of the banking crisis that damaged the mortgage business in 2007-2009. The lender on our biggest shopping center decided (without even looking at my resume) that I would not be competent to run the business and tried to foreclose on my property. To survive, it took a good lawyer, taking on a partner, and cleaning up a half-million-dollar contamination from a former dry cleaning tenant. In the end, I was able to renovate the center, add a new Kroger store and buy out my partner. (I sent a grand re-opening invitation to the officer at the adversarial bank—he didn’t come!)
Your husband, Gary Roberts, is president of Bradley University. How did you meet? Tell us about your life together in Peoria.
I met Gary on eharmony. I had been so busy surviving the real estate problems, I hadn’t really thought about dating. I was in my late 50s and the world was a different place. Looking for my “prince” on dating websites, I found several frogs. But then I saw Gary and was immediately attracted. When exchanging emails, I insisted he had to love dogs. He actually turned out to be even more of a dog person than me! The rest is history.
We have totally enjoyed Peoria. Buying Wayne Baum’s old house helped! We love the house, although the white carpet had to go. We are so busy with Bradley activities, we are seldom bored. A day off usually includes popcorn and old movies. Peoria is so easy to get around… with quality people—a small city with big-city offerings.
What is it like to work with Bradley’s Art Department as the Slane College Artist in Residence?
Like a kid in a candy store! I am basically self-taught, so I was thrilled when they appointed me artist in residence, where I am able to attend various art classes and get to know the professors. My goal is to enhance awareness of the wonderful talent Bradley’s Art Department has. We put together a committee to collect art from students, professors and alumni to hang in the main Bradley buildings. Bradley is becoming a gallery of original artwork and looks so much better. I created 10 portraits that I have donated to Bradley, and I was recently appointed to the board of directors of Illinois Arts Alliance, where I hope to expand Bradley’s and Peoria’s presence in the Illinois art scene.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your community work and personal life?
Dogs! And remembering what’s important in life. Marriage tips: Always show respect for each other. Accept the fact that no one is perfect—we are all flawed individuals. Accept and handle these flaws with a sense of humor.
What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
To have made my existence worthwhile. To touch as many lives as possible in a positive way.
What inspires you?
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
A nurse, a nun (which is interesting since I’m not Catholic!), or a forest ranger.
What advice would you give to a young female professional?
Nothing is impossible—it’s amazing what you can do when you have to! Be persistent, tenacious and hard-working. Never give up. Be always willing to go the extra step to succeed. Never compromise your personal values—others might, but they pay for it in the long run.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
Wine! And time with my dogs.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Why?
Lincoln—not only because he was great, but he is my sixth cousin! Maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a strong woman who never gave up.
Where do you find inspiration as an artist? How much time do you spend on a given piece?
I look for a beauty within that catches my eye. I’ve never been able to do landscapes and rarely have done still lifes. I keep coming back to faces—they all have stories to tell. Originally I started in watercolors and still do them today when the subject calls for that style. These may take only a few hours, although some more complicated pieces have taken weeks. My oils usually take anywhere from a few weeks to six months. I recently finished a portrait of the last chief of the Peoria tribe of Native Americans. I found the photograph at Alexander’s [Steakhouse] and was moved by the image. Steve Shaw allowed me to borrow the photo to paint from.
Tell us about some of your other favorite or most prominent works.
One of my favorites is the formal portrait I did of Gary when he stepped down as dean of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law. It included a dog (of course!), his grand-dog Addie. I think it may be the only dean’s portrait with a dog hanging in the hallowed halls of law schools!
Gary traveled to China quite a bit due to his law school’s relationship with Renmin University’s law school in Beijing, China. I was able to join him on some of the trips, and when the dean of Renmin’s law school saw my artwork, he asked that I do a portrait for their school. I created a large portrait of an Asian Lady Justice that was unveiled in Beijing in 2013 and still hangs there today.
Gary’s reputation as an international authority on sports law landed him a position on CAS, the international court for sports. In 2014, he was selected to be one of nine legal arbitrators at the Sochi Olympics. This was an incredible opportunity, and we had a great time while there. I met a young lady from Russia’s leading sports magazine, who heard I was planning to do artwork of the Olympic athletes and asked me to send her images when I completed them. They loved the pieces and asked permission for the magazine to make posters of my art for the head of the Russian Olympic Committee and for the athletes themselves. In addition, they requested permission to use my portrait of Olympic speed skater Viktor An for the cover of their magazine. Needless to say, this was a thrill; however, the magazine cover never happened (something about Russia’s relationship with the U.S. after the invasion of Crimea).
Describe your board service and community involvement. What causes are near and dear to you?
I am on the board of directors for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and Peoria Humane Society, and have been a pillar for the United Way fundraising campaign. My husband Gary is on the boards for the Children’s Home, Creve Coeur Club and Bradley University.
I think it’s pretty obvious that we are animal lovers, especially dogs, which is why I wrote my book, The Adventures of Mr. Fuzzy Ears: Searching for a Furry Friend. In addition to the fact that profits from central Illinois will go to the Peoria Humane Society, the book’s purpose is to spread awareness that animals are wonderful creatures who should be loved and cared for. I created all the original artwork and hope to inspire children to develop their own creativity.
My other focus is on education. After leaving college in my junior year, I finally went back to college in my 40s to finish my bachelor’s degree while working full-time. Education is the door that opens so many opportunities.
I am working with Dr. Sharon Kherat on using my book to help Peoria primary schools promote reading and perhaps inspire children to be writers. We have done a number of readings of Mr. Fuzzy Ears to schoolchildren throughout Peoria and surrounding areas, always asking at the end “How many of you are going to write your own book?!” Almost every hand goes up—I love it! iBi