Obituary: William Roberts / A boxer-turned-jeweler collected antique cars

Feb. 5, 1931 - June 25, 2014

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Twenty years ago, William Standish of Sewickley walked inside John M. Roberts and Sons jewelers to buy a watch from a friend. He needed a new watch, and William Roberts happened to be working for the family business. The salesman never pressured anyone to make a purchase, but his customers invariably left satisfied.

To this day, Mr. Standish still wears the gold-rimmed battery wristwatch with which Mr. Roberts fitted him. It has outlived his friend, and Mr. Standish predicts that it will outlive him, too.

“It’s a very reliable, sturdy watch,” he said.

By all accounts, Mr. Roberts’ warm character garnered as much respect as the watches and engagement rings he sold. The Mt. Lebanon native wore many hats: a boxer in his youth, a jeweler in his adulthood and a lifelong collector of antique cars. He spent his last years at retirement community Longwood at Oakmont in Verona, passing away June 25 from a stroke. He was 83.

Mr. Roberts was born prematurely on Feb. 5, 1931, to Arminta Kapphan and John M. Roberts III.

His small stature incited the teasing of other children, so his father placed him in boxing classes so he could learn to defend himself.

Though he went on to win numerous boxing championships in high school and college, the sport was incongruous with his personality.

“I never saw my father really angry with anybody, so I can’t imagine how he was able to box,” said his daughter Caroline Wentling, of Point Breeze, with a laugh.

He retired his gloves after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1955, but his training in the sport was useful in other ways.

Boxing requires its players to be fast on their feet, and so Mr. Roberts was among the best jump-ropers in the neighborhood, often impressing Mrs. Wentling’‍s friends with leaps and twirls.

In Sewickley, where Mr. Roberts lived for nearly 60 years, he was known for giving neighbors rides in his yellow car, a 1920 Mercer Raceabout. Mrs. Wentling recalled often walking home from school only to watch her father drive past with a child beside him, both of them waving to her from the front seat.

At the height of his passion for cars, Mr. Roberts owned enough vehicles to fill his garage, his father’s extra garage and several storage facilities. He helped found the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix and worked as a docent at The Frick Historical Center’‍s Car and Carriage Museum for six years.

His friend and fellow classic car enthusiast, G. Whitney Snyder, donated a large portion of his car collection to The Frick, where Mr. Roberts gave tours until 2013.

Mr. Roberts met his wife, Caroline Moody, while they were college students in Virginia, he at the University of Virginia and she at Sweet Briar College. They married in 1955 and were “opposites who complemented each other,” according to Mrs. Wentling.

Eastern Maryland resident Sarah Stoner was close friends with the couple when she lived in Sewickley and attended Sewickley Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Roberts was a deacon. The pair was sophisticated yet fun-loving, Mrs. Stoner said.

Her two sons purchased their engagement rings from Mr. Roberts, who were thrilled at hearing about marriage proposals. Mrs. Stoner recalled that the experience of entering his store was unparalleled.

“He was always glad to see you, no matter how much you were willing to spend,” she said. “It wasn’t high-powered salesmanship; it was caring.”

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Roberts is survived by his son W. Drake Roberts Jr., three grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.

There will be a service at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Longwood at Oakmont chapel. A memorial celebration will begin at 11 a.m. Saturday at Sewickley Presbyterian Church. Donations may be made to The Frick Car and Carriage Museum, the Sewickley Heights History Center or to an organization of the well-wisher’‍s choice.


Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @yananw.

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