While preparing for a presentation about the return of the Descartes letter, I came upon this speech from Secretary of the Board of Managers, Howard Comfort, dedicating Roberts Hall in 1903, which together with the Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection, had been donated to the College by Roberts’ widow, Lucy Branson Roberts. The speech is included in its entirety, having been transcribed by our student assistant, Kyle McCloskey ’11.
Remarks at the opening of Roberts Hall, Haverford College – Fourth Month 30th 1903
By Howard Comfort
It seems fitting, at the first formal gathering in this new building, that a few words should be said regarding its creation and purpose.
In 1860, Charles Roberts, descended from Welsh ancestors, entered Haverford.
In the chapter he wrote for the Haverford History, he calls his College days, “the Civil War Period” – the weary days of the great struggle between the north and the South, when thousands of troops rolled by on the railroad which then bounded the college grounds. On one occasion Lincoln bowed to the students from the rear platform of a passing train, while on his way to take up his duties as the newly elected President. Charles Roberts tells us it was the day of small things in college and without. The conditions were however favorable to the development of mental training, in the quiet student of simple tasks, who loved reading and study. In the family life that then prevailed, students were drawn more closely together than now, so friendships were formed and interests aroused, that lasted through life.
In 1864, Charles Roberts was one of the first class that rec’d their diplomas from the platform of the then new Alumni Hall. During a successful business career of nearly thirty years, he took an active part in many societies and organizations, founded to promote historical, artistic, scientific, benevolent, antiquarian and educational purposes.
It was as a member of the City Councils of Philadelphia, that he was best known to the general public. He served in the Councilmanic Chamber continuously for 18 years, up to the time of his death. In this service he faithfully, ably and honestly performed his trust, setting an excellent example of strict integrity and fidelity to public duty.
Secure in the confidence of his constituents, he retained the personal esteem and friendship of his opponents by never impugning their motives, thus confining his criticism to objectionable measures.
This evening, Charles Roberts’ connection with this college is of especial interest. He was a member of the Board of Managers for thirty years. During part of this time he was President of the Alumni Association and Secretary of the Corporation. He was, perhaps the most regular attender of Board and Committee meetings, where his ripe judgment and Knowledge of College affairs will he greatly missed. A liberal contributor to every good cause, he was ever ready to answer the not infrequent calls of his Alma Mater. Therefore when his premature death occurred fifteen months ago, his colleagues had no expectations from the estate of one [who] had already done so much for the College.
In March of last year, Mrs Roberts informed the Board, that she wished to present to the College an Assembly Hall, in memory of her husband. The only condition attached, was that the new Hall should contain fire-proof rooms for the reception of the Autograph Collections, to be given the College, and to be Known as the Charles Roberts Autograph Collection and kept intact by the College.
The Managers gratefully accepted this generous offer, with a keen sense of its fitness as a memorial of one whose interest in our Institution had been so constant & fruitful.
Mrs Roberts has co-operated with the Building Committee in the selection of a site, and has given valuable help in the consideration and revision of plans, prepared by Cope and Stewardson, architects.
Owing to difficulties which attend many building operations of recent times, completion has been delayed, but we are glad to welcome you this evening to this room, which, even in its present conditions, promises to be a most convenient assembly room for our larger academic gatherings.
When all is finished, we expect to have administrative offices at the right of the front entrance, for the dispensation of such laws and orders as are incident to the Presidential office.
On the left are two fire-proof rooms for the final home of the collection of rare manuscripts gathered by our late friend. As an undergraduate, he had the usual youthful desire to collect, and early began to accumulate papers and autographs to be pasted in an old fashioned scrap-book.
Through many years, before so many collections were in the field, Charles Roberts was a judicious and constant buyer of rare books, portraits, prints, autographs and manuscripts of a literary and historical character.
The autograph collection alone has been conservatively estimated as worth $85,000. It includes the letters of many literary men of this country and Europe, and of nearly all the statesmen and public characters of the United States.
Mrs Roberts has been giving much attention to the best way to care for this collection, so as to combine safety with a proper degree of accessibility, one of the most difficult problems for curators to solve. It is her desire, as we knew it would have been that of her husband, to allow as much opportunity for examination and study as is proper, — and if any mistake is made it will be on the side of liberality.
Some in this audience can recall, as I do, their pleasure in opportunities to examine some of these manuscripts, under the guidance of their late owner.
With the suppressed enthusiasm of the antiquarian, he would draw treasure after treasure from well-ordered receptacles, and point out the distinctive features of each. I remember his showing some letters of Shelly and Burns, to illustrate their care in the details of paper, penmanship, the framing of paragraphs, and accurate use of language.
A study of this collection will go far to confirm the impressions that the art of letter writing as practiced one hundred years (and less) ago, has been lost in the rushing activity of this generation.
The cost of this Hall, when completed, will be about $53,000, which, — added to the market value of the autographs, makes this memorial worth nearly $140,000, expressed in the measure of material things. Measured by the standard of academic sentiment, who will attempt to fix its value through the coming years?
For the love and interest which prompted this magnificent gift, I esteem it a duty and a privilege, to thank Lucy Branson Roberts in the name of the Corporation and of all students past and present, and still more on behalf of the wider constituency we call friends of the College — and of the innumerable company of future generations of students, who will seek the truth beneath these shades, long after all present have passed away.