Ninety-five-year-old Irene Roberts might be Carroll College’s biggest fan.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” she says as she steps into St. Charles Hall on a recent sunny afternoon, as if she were visiting the building for the first time.
But it isn’t the first time Roberts has been in the building — she has been auditing classes at Carroll for more than 20 years.
As she tucks herself into a chair in a sunny corner of the lobby, the modest mother of eight children begins to explain her love for Carroll College and learning. Her soft, raspy voice is full of inflection and punctuated with chuckles.
“You come in and the kids just welcome you. The professors are family. There’s just a warmth about it,” she says. “The professors are just so great and in a small college you have one-on-one.”
The college is a big part of why she and her husband, Byron Roberts, moved to Helena in 1955, she says.
Seven of her children and many of her grandchildren have attended the school.
“All I can say is it is such a wonderful program, and at this age, I’m still going,” Roberts says. “I come out (of classes) and the world has changed. It just opens your mind.”
In the dozens of classes she’s audited at Carroll, she’s studied history, art, writing, psychology, theology and many other topics — with the exception of Latin.
“I haven’t taken Latin since I was in high school, and I think I flunked,” she says. “There was no way.”
Roberts says she can’t believe more senior citizens don’t take advantage of the auditing program, which allows those over 60 years old to audit classes for $50 a credit hour.
This semester, Roberts is auditing Rural and Urban Sociology with Prof. Jamie Dolan.
“She looks like a teenager, Dr. Dolan, cute as a button,” Roberts says. “And I love sociology. My class up here has just been inspiring.”
“Jamie,” Roberts exclaims, as the door of the lobby opens and Dolan walks over.
“This is one amazing women,” Dolan says. “Only the lucky of us have been Irene’s professor. She came the first day of class having read half of both of the textbooks.”
Roberts says she has learned a lot in the class.
“To start with, we’re an urban society,” Roberts says. “Now, when I was growing up, a little bitty girl, it was rural.”
She was born in 1917 to George and Rose Hand and grew up in a four-room log cabin built by her father on “the flat prairies in South Dakota where the wind blew,” she says. “Sometimes it would blow through the windows and snow would form on the table.”
Her love of learning probably started in that cabin, she explains.
She recalls being 4 or 5 years old and standing in the kitchen of the cabin, near a big wood stove, listening to her mother say in broken English that her children would all go to college.
“My brothers were going to be doctors, they were twins, I was going to be a teacher and my sister was going to be a nurse,” she recalls.
And Irene did become a teacher. In 1937, she started teaching 13 kids in eight grades at the Cottonwood School between Ismay and Baker in eastern Montana.
But her teaching career was put on hold in 1938 with her marriage to Byron Roberts.
“I could not teach after I was married because it would take a job away from a man, and so then I had all those kids and I didn’t have time,” Roberts says.
“I always had this wanting to learn, and then it was stymied for how many years while the kids grew up,” she says with chuckle and a smile. “But they’d bring their books home and I’d read ’em.”
“But anyway,” she says often, always winding back to her love of Carroll College, insisting that it is more important than she.
Her classmates — many of them likely 75 years younger than her — are “the hope of the world,” she says.
She’s very modest about her accomplishments.
Quite simply, “if you see something to do, do it,” she says.
And she still finds plenty to do. The 95-year-old has volunteered with the Helena Food Share and numerous other organizations in the past. She currently volunteers at the Holter Museum of Art and at area nursing homes, in addition to auditing classes.
Roberts has received recognition and several accolades for her community service and support of Carroll, including the Montana Mother of the Year award in 2005 and Carroll College’s Borromeo service award in 2008.
The college also set up the Byron and Irene Roberts and Albert and Marie Nix Professorship in Engineering, which was funded and established by family members to honor Byron and Irene Roberts and Albert and Marie Nix.
“What I most value about Irene is she is an upbeat and outspoken person,” says Anne Perkins, a psychology professor at Carroll who has taught Irene in several classes. “She’s been handed a lot of difficulties in her life. She just remains just a very positive, upbeat person. You just can’t be down in her presence.”
As Roberts cheerfully talks about her life and love of learning, she concludes, “But anyway. It’s been a great life. Had my ups and downs.”
At age 6, she contracted polio. The disease temporarily paralyzed the right side of her body and permanently damaged her right arm.
“I can’t type, in fact, even on the computers because I had polio,” Robert says. “I never was able to type.”
She lost a 3-year-old daughter to leukemia, and her husband passed away when Roberts was 70.
“I think that was one of the greatest things I learned — what has happened, happened and you accept it from there,” Roberts says. “You go forward.”
She’s lived through catastrophic events like the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and WWII — which took place well before televisions were in virtually every home. Now she enjoys watching educational television programs about those events and other topics.
A person should never stop learning, she explains.
“Oh,” Roberts says. “Oh, you can’t stop. In fact, I have this thirst. As I’m older, they have such fabulous stuff on PBS and History Channel and all these. For my 95th birthday, the kids got me an iPad and I like it, but I’m not good at it.
“And I hear people talk about the good old days — they weren’t. These are the good days,” Roberts says. “The world has improved. The whole system has improved. We’re kinder. I think there’s more love for children, more love for the poor.”
Every few minutes, a professor Roberts has had a class with passes by, stopping to chat with her. Always she steers the conversation away from herself.
“Well, you have to humbly admit you have so much to tell,” Edward Noonan, a member of Carroll’s theater faculty, tells her.
“I know. But anyway,” says Roberts, who is planning to audit another class in the spring. “My life, I’d rather just live it than talk about it. I just want to hang around and see what’s going to happen. It’s wonderful.”