The first impression was always the same for anyone who met Kevin Roberts: Boy, is that guy happy.
The second impression: Is it really possible to be that happy?
“If I ever saw Kevin not smiling, I can’t remember,” former Daily News baseball writer Paul Hagen said Friday shortly after learning the horrific news that Roberts, with his wife, Kim; father, Art; and brother Jon by his side in North Carolina, had lost his battle with bladder cancer at the age of 53. “He was one of the most upbeat and optimistic people I’ve ever met.”
Roberts, a Michigan native, became a baseball writer shortly after graduating from Michigan State in 1990. His first assignment was covering the Pirates for the Tribune Review in suburban Pittsburgh. He became a Philadelphia resident in 1997 after being hired to cover the Phillies for the Courier-Post. I am somewhat responsible because Roberts replaced me after I left to cover the Phillies for the Delaware County Daily Times.
You could say my departure was one of the best things to ever happen for Philadelphia because Roberts, just by being himself, made this city a better place.
“There’s that old cliche from F. Scott Fitzgerald that there are no second acts in life, but Kevin had a great second act,” Hagen said.
Roberts’ life after sports journalism -- a career he absolutely loved -- was as the point man for One Step Away, the monthly Philadelphia newspaper distributed by the homeless and designed to help the homeless get back on track. Philadelphia native Emily Taylor has been the director at One Step Away for a decade and she knows all about Roberts’ impact.
“He’s a true hero, angel and champion,” Taylor said. “Kevin was the first editor and really the driving force of One Step Away.”
Roberts was hired as the communications manager at Resources for Human Development in 2009 shortly after being laid off by the Courier-Post.
“I remember him telling me he was pretty much done with journalism and that he wanted to do something where he could help people," said Todd Shaner, an Inquirer copy and layout editor who worked with Roberts and remained close with him after they left the Courier-Post.
Roberts ended up helping people who needed help the most.
Taylor said Bob Fishman, the founder and former CEO of Resources for Human Development, a non-profit organization that serves people in need of homes, shelters, mental health counseling and addiction recovery, made a trip to Washington D.C. in October 2009 and saw a newspaper operation helping the homeless in the nation’s capital.
“He came back and he told Kevin, Jean Kowalski and Eddie Byrd to make it happen in Philadelphia,” Taylor said. “They all had prior journalism experience and in two months they made it happen.”
In a meeting at the Ridge Center, which was the largest men’s homeless shelter in the city at the time, content issues, circulation initiatives and names for the newspaper were discussed. Taylor said they settled upon One Step Away because “everyone is one step away from being homeless and one step away from recovering from being homeless.”
Roberts fell in love with the job.
“His mom was kind of a saint,” Kim Roberts said. “She worked in a drug rehab facility and Kevin just always wanted to make a difference. Through his contacts, he was able to help so many people. He was still working up until about two weeks ago and even then he had brought his computer to the hospital.”
Kim Roberts said one of her husband’s favorite One Step Away authors was Stephanie Bermudez, a legally blind 13-year-old who was one of the first to tell her homeless story. Her story was later recounted in the Inquirer.
Roberts got the late legendary Philadelphia boxer Matthew Saad Muhammad to tell his homeless story and he recruited the late Darren Daulton to help the organization. Taylor said Roberts was a master at communicating with the homeless vendors who used One Step Away as an avenue to improve their lives.
“Kevin meant the world to me,” Taylor said. "I was 23 when they asked me to be the director of One Step Away. Most people were saying I was too young and too sweet to be in this role, but Kevin was like, ‘No, she can do it.’ That was the best thing about Kevin as a boss and supervisor. He would always tell you that you could do it and let you know that he was there if you needed his help.
“When you speak to the homeless, you’re often dealing with a population that is not used to people listening to them, but Kevin always made sure they understood that he believed in them. He wanted them to be visible and he wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. You could tell he was sincere about it.”
Before Roberts became Saint Kevin, he was a sportswriter who loved the job and made people laugh.
Phil Anastasia, who was one of Roberts’ sports editors at the Courier-Post and now covers high schools at the Inquirer, has a few stories about his former colleague, including one that is among his all-time favorites.
“He was like the perfect employee -- great at what he did and a great attitude,” Anastasia said. “He’d do anything. I once had to send him to Atlantic City for an indoor bull riding competition. Nine out of 10 columnists would have told me they had something else to do that day. He went down and knocked it out of the park. He also had the ability to be funny in print. You could hear his voice in his writing and that’s a rare gift. He once wrote after an Atlanta pitcher could not make a start because of a sore buttocks that the guy was the first man in major-league history to be scratched by his own ass.”
Roberts did not leave the world of sports journalism because he was not good enough. He was a victim of the turbulent times that struck the business near the end of the last decade.
“I think he got a certificate as the employee of the month the same day they gave him his pink slip,” Anastasia said. “If that does not underscore the absurdity of our business, I don’t know what does.”
Like everyone, Roberts was hurt by the loss of a job he loved.
“There were a lot of things he missed,” Hagen said. “But I never heard him complain or whine about it. He just went to the next thing and threw himself into it. One Step Away would always have a fundraising event every May and I used to go and marvel at the number of people he helped.”