For years, Roberta Palmer’s personalized license plate said it all: MBCMOM.
“I love my daughters,” Palmer said of the hundreds of students — now alumnae — she has cared for over the years. “They’re here for me, and I’m always here for them.”
As unofficial “mother,” Palmer checked in with, kept up with, and offered emotional support to many students in the Mary Baldwin College for Women in addition to her official roles in the Office of Admissions and in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. Going well above her job requirements, she advised, she baked, and she cooked. She established close ties with students’ families — many times upon their first visits to campus.
“Samantha Engtsler’s mother said I could ground her,” Palmer joked about the 2011 graduate.
After 19 years at Mary Baldwin, Palmer announced her retirement earlier this year. She and her husband, Gary, are headed to Florida at the end of the month.
“We love the beach,” Roberta Palmer said from her Waynesboro home, fresh from a trip to Bradenton, where they have purchased a new house. “We always thought we’d be in Myrtle Beach, but then we came to Florida and said ‘Uh-uh. This is it. This is where we want to be.’”
Palmer is especially looking forward to a restful retirement in Florida after health setbacks and deep personal loss in recent years. In 2012, the Palmers’ only son, Greg, passed away suddenly, and just a few months later, Roberta experienced heart problems. One of her fondest memories of working at Mary Baldwin occurred during those difficult months.
“Dr. Fox and I were already friends and colleagues, but her father and my father were both ill together … and I saw her as a [fellow grieving] daughter. And after they both passed, we comforted each other,” she said. “When Greg died, she was the second person I called. When I had my open-heart surgery, she sent me messages and texts. People don’t see that side of the administration; they don’t see the compassion on a personal level.”
Another memory that remains with Palmer is when she was assigned to one of two students who came to Mary Baldwin when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. “She was still in shock, and they thought I could give her some mothering that she needed,” Palmer said. “One day she came to me in tears and told me she had no sheets, towels, toiletries, and so on. So the two of us went to Wal-Mart, and I bought her everything she needed to get her on her feet and get her room decorated. It was very emotional for both of us.”
Reflecting on her favorite responsibilities at Mary Baldwin, Palmer recalls working with families who first visit the university, showing them around, telling them about the positive outcomes that await their daughters, and also advising some of those students later in the Presidents Society.
“[Our relationship with] Roberta, or ‘Mama Bert,’ or just ‘Mama’— as most of us call her — is truly one of our most magical memories from our time and experience at Mary Baldwin,” said Courtney Leard ’02, a former member of the Presidents Society. “Many of us actually forged our connection to Mama before we even set foot on campus because she was a telecounselor then. She was not only our first point of contact with the college, but also she saw it as her mission to begin to form those personal relationships with her girls before we even set foot on the campus. She had Mary Baldwin’s mission running through her veins and saw to it that all of the young ladies that she came into contact with not only felt at home, but also knew they could and would do amazing things in life because she believed in us all. She told us how much she believed in us, but more than that she showed us, and continues to show us through her constant contact, support, love, and encouragement.
“You want to make her proud, just as you do your own parents, because she was vested in all of us being successful, not just in college, but in life.”
Many of those women in the Presidents Society eventually became admissions counselors — giving back to the institution and helping more women experience the benefits of Mary Baldwin.
Palmer said she plans to keep recruiting for Mary Baldwin in an unofficial capacity, and has even asked for admissions packets so that she can continue to hand out information to perspective students she may meet. Her door will also remain open to those Mary Baldwin “daughters,” even in the Sunshine State.
“We’re moving on Halloween,” she said. The Palmers and their two dogs, Lexi and Taylor, will live 15 minutes from the beach. “All my girls, all the daughters, have said they’re coming. We joke that we need to set up a Google calendar to keep the schedules straight.”
Leard said that whether it was providing late-night rides to the emergency room, writing notes and providing stress relief during exam time, helping students accept hard lessons or overcoming a bad grade or poor choices, or watching with pure joy as her “daughters” graduated, Palmer “is the epitome of a mother to us all,” Leard said, “And it never stopped. I left Mary Baldwin in 2002 and all of this love, encouragement, support, and advice is still only a call or email away. She has loved us unconditionally and always will.”