1995 Seymour High School graduate Dr. Jason Roberts gives his presentation on Cold War spies during a conference televised by C-SPAN 3. Roberts is a history and government professor at Quincy College.
When Dr. Jason Roberts attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he gained not only a doctorate, but also a wife. Roberts’ life has been all about pleasant surprises—and espionage.
On April 27, Roberts appeared on C-SPAN 3, from a conference he spoke at earlier last month about Cold War-era spies. Roberts gave a presentation on Morton Sobell, an atypical secret agent—no James Bond—convicted of espionage, espousing his innocence until 2008, when he finally admitted to providing classified documents to the USSR. Sobell was convicted in the same trial as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the couple executed for providing classified atomic information to the Soviets.
“It’s easier to [give your presentation] at the beginning of a conference, because then you’re done,” Roberts says. “It was surreal doing it. I haven’t watched my presentation yet. My mother and Enfys McMurry watched it at Enfys’ house [in Corydon].”
Among other speakers on the panel were John Fox, the FBI’s historian, and David Chambers, the grandson of former Time magazine editor and Soviet spy Whitaker Chambers, who later renounced Communism and testified in the perjury and espionage trial of Alger Hiss.
Roberts is a history and government professor at Quincy College in Quincy, Mass. just outside of Boston. He graduated from Seymour Community High School in 1995, and was once an usher for the Sewal United Methodist Church. He graduated from Indian Hills Community College in Centerville in 1997, from Northwest Missouri State University with a BA in history in 1999, and again from Maryville, Mo. for his masters in 2001. From there, he arrived at George Washington University in 2001, and received his Ph.D. in 2007.
He was a teaching adjunct in the D.C. area for around a year after earning his doctorate.
“Two days after my graduation, I was in the classroom teaching for the first time. I was so nervous. The classroom was hot. They didn’t have audio-visual equipment in the class. I had to lug an LCD projector into the room. [The course] was the United States since 1945. We had a great discussion about Truman and the bomb, and whether he was justified in using it. That was a crazy experience, but it turned out well in the end. It ended up being a great class.”
In 2010, Roberts was applying for jobs, and got the call for an interview from Quincy. He felt he hit it off with the committee, but did not want to get his hopes up.
“A month later, they offered me the job.”
Roberts and his wife, Emilie, moved from Bethesda, Md. in August of 2010, when he started his job.
Roberts’ wife was born in Vietnam, where Emilie’s father was a tour guide. A host family, an Air Force couple, brought her to the United States in 1997. Roberts and Emilie met at George Washington when Roberts was in grad school. They will have been married 10 years in August.
Emily is an accountant, receiving her masters from George Washington, but she loves history, politics and current events, as well.
Roberts first ran into Emily at the Gelman Library on campus.
“It was really weird,” Roberts says. “I’d be at the library and run into her. I’d be walking on campus and run into her. I’d be waiting for the Metro at Foggy Bottom, and she’d be on the other side of the track, and I’d notice her.”
They got together for coffee. Coffee became lunch. Lunch became a movie. Three months later, they were married.
Roberts’ first journey to the United State capitol came when he interned for Senator Charles Grassley in the summer of 1997. He stayed at one of the dorms at George Washington and loved the experience. It was a bit of a culture shock, however, coming from rural Iowa to a large metropolitan area on the East Coast. He recalls a neighbor baiting him by saying, ‘Iowa—isn’t that where all those KKK people are?’
In 2001, he applied to 10 different grad schools, including GW, though he did not expect to get in. The University of Missouri-Columbia accepted him, and that was his family’s favorite choice, because he would be close to home. But when he got the call from GW, he could not turn down the opportunity. He was living with a friend in Maryville, Mo., and his father called and said he had received the acceptance letter.
“I wanted to go to GW,” Roberts says. “That’s the perfect place to study political history. This is where the action is, right there in the nation’s capitol. I could go from my classes at GW to the Library of Congress and the National Archives. I’d have been kicking myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t go.”
The only downside for the first two years was not having funding, before he received a teaching assistantship. Roberts indicates he is still paying for college.
“I’ve always had a love for history,” Roberts says. “Growing up, my aunt, Donna Niday, would read me history stories, and whenever she traveled somewhere, she would bring [something] back.”
Dr. Donna Niday is an English professor at Iowa State University, and a member of Jennifer Pruiett-Selby’s masters thesis committee at ISU.
“Growing up, [my aunt] was one of my role models, someone I sought to emulate,” Roberts says. “She encouraged me to go on for a masters, and go on for a Ph.D.
“One summer, she was taking classes in England, and she came back with recorded speeches of Winston Churchill. I used to listen to the recorded speeches of Churchill.
“My grandmother [former teacher Leila Niday] is still into history—reading books all the time. We would often talk history at the dinner table.
“I had many excellent teachers over the years that encouraged and reinforced my love of history. These include Barbara Eddy, my social studies elementary teacher at Seymour, David Maddalozzo, my history teacher at Seymour High School, Enfys McMurry, my English and literature instructor at Indian Hills Community College, Richard Frucht, my history professor and thesis advisor at Northwest Missouri State, and Leo Ribuffo, my history professor and dissertation advisor at George Washington. These teachers made history come alive for me.
“To me, history is a story about the past. One of my first interests in history was the presidents. When I was seven or eight years old, my parents gave me a book about the presidents. Every day, I’d read the entry and put in a stamp. From there, I started reading books on the presidency. I started reading biographies of famous people, American and international—Churchill, Napoleon, Horatio Nelson. The presidency is still a passion.
“Then there’s the other side of the family. My brother’s a trucker. My father’s a farmer. It’s an interesting mix of academic teachers and farmers.
“In the classroom, especially with history classes, I know the information so well that no one can really ask a question that takes me by surprise. At a conference, these are your peers—I’m more nervous.
“I like classes where I have enthusiastic students that want to learn—it isn’t just about the grade. If you’re a teacher, you feed off of that. I like students where I think my teaching is making a difference. I like the idea of preparing students.
“I always feel like I have a unique perspective, because I’ve been everywhere—I went to a two-year school, I taught at a two-year school. I attended a four-year school and a private school, GW. Taught at a private school. So I know how a two-year school works, what they’re expecting at a four-year school or a private school. I feel like I can bring that into play at Quincy College.
“I taught a Cold War class last semester, and I had a lot of students enthusiastic about the Cold War. I loved that. One of my favorite students was a high school student taking college classes. He is going to Harvard University in the fall [for pre-med]. He loves learning, he’s intelligent, always has perceptive questions.
“Soviet espionage has always interested me—[and the question], why do people spy? The mechanics of espionage. In my History II class, I talk about the difference of how it’s portrayed in the movies—the dashing James Bond or Jason Bourne, who could kill you with his bare hands—versus the actual people who spy, who are the best spies because you would never expect they were spies.
“Like this guy, Harry Gold. This short, overweight, intellectual Jewish boy who was a Chemist, a mama’s boy, and it turned out for years he was spying for the Soviet Union. His family didn’t know. His friends didn’t know.
“My favorite class is American Presidency. I almost teach it as a history class, because you can’t understand the presidency unless you understand it chronologically.
“I had one class last fall that was cancelled, and I was devastated. It was like losing a loved one—I was losing the presidency. The next morning, fortunately I checked my email, a student who had dropped my class signed up for it [again], so I had the minimum number of students to run the course.”
Roberts hopes that his enthusiasm is infectious, in a good way. In the end, he embraces a humanist ideal of the power of small gestures and small steps that can change the bigger picture.
“I love the idea that people make history. I don’t think one person totally reshapes everything—there’s only so much people can do—but I do believe in the idea of people making a difference.”