Sally-Ann Roberts got her shot in New Orleans news because Angela Hill ran out of steam on the road.
One night in 1977, Hill, the co-anchor of WWL-TV’s top-rated evening newscast, decided to stop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, rather than drive home to New Orleans. In her hotel room, she flipped on Channel 7, home to WDAM-TV.
And she saw Roberts. More specifically, she saw something in Roberts.
All of 24 years old, Roberts anchored WDAM’s news every other weekend out of Eastabuchie, Mississippi. She also wrote and produced the newscasts and handled the weather.
Back in New Orleans, Hill suggested to WWL-TV news director Phil Johnson that he check out this young reporter in Mississippi. Johnson did and offered Roberts a job covering City Hall. She accepted.
Four decades later, Roberts, 65, is retiring as a beloved New Orleans media icon. Wednesday is her last day on “Eyewitness Morning News,” which she has co-hosted with Eric Paulsen for 26 years.
A deeply spiritual believer in the power of prayer and positive thinking, she has nurtured New Orleanians, told their stories, and shared their — and her own — sorrows across thousands of broadcasts with consistent class and unflappable professionalism.
She never slowed down. On Mardi Gras, two weeks before retirement, she spent eight grueling hours live-broadcasting from the St. Charles Avenue parade route, costumed as the Mario Brothers character Princess Daisy.
On Tuesday, she interviewed her successor, Sheba Turk, about Turk’s new book. On Wednesday, she’ll be the subject of an emotional send-off.
And on Thursday, her first day of retirement?
“I’ll be watching the morning show,” she said recently. “But I’ll be watching the morning show over pancakes and bacon, in my pajamas.”
'I was scared'
The daughter of Lawrence Roberts, an Air Force colonel and member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and Lucimarian Roberts, an accomplished educator, Sally-Ann Roberts was born in Arizona.
She spent her childhood bouncing around to her father’s various postings: Iowa, Alabama, Ohio, New Jersey, Turkey. During her junior year of high school, he was transferred to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi.
Not long after Sally-Ann earned a master’s degree in communications from the University of Southern Mississippi, Angela Hill made that fateful overnight stop in Hattiesburg.
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Hill could have kept on driving. Or not turned on the TV. Or tuned in to a station other than WDAM.
“Or she could have said, ‘That was nice,’ and turned the television off and went to sleep," Roberts said. "And that would have been the end of it.
“But I tell people all the time: You never know who’s watching you while you’re doing your work. You never know who’s thinking about you. It only takes one person to change a life forever. Angela Hill changed the trajectory of my life. If it had not been for Angela, I would not have come to this city and had all the wonderful experiences I’ve had.”
As a newbie City Hall reporter, Roberts was intimidated by the veterans on the beat. At the time, she and her husband, Willie Craft, lived in a small apartment across North Rampart Street from the WWL studios.
“As I was going out the door, Willie would say, ‘Your power is on.’ That was his way of saying I wasn’t going to work alone, that I would have help from God.”
A preacher cousin of hers in Hattiesburg once riffed on how, if you wanted to earn a “Ph.D in spirituality,” you had to get scared.
“I got my Ph.D in spirituality covering city government,” Roberts said. “I was scared. But I learned a lot.”
She also learned to love the quirks of her adopted hometown. She didn’t know what to make of the boiled crawfish she first encountered at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
By contrast, the three children she and Craft raised are all native New Orleanians who, their proud mama notes, “can eat their weight in crawfish.”
'All kinds of phases'
From the City Hall beat, Roberts went on to anchor WWL’s “Early Edition” show, then served as a weekend news anchor. In 1991, the station paired her with Paulsen on “Eyewitness Morning News.”
In the morning mix of hard news, entertainment, interviews and human interest stories, Roberts, with her soothing smile and calming balm of a voice, found her calling. Her “Quiet Heroes” series celebrated unsung heroes who make a difference. She hosted a teen-driven series, "Our Generation."
Over the years, she wrote three books; the latest is “Your Power Is On!: A Little Book of Hope.” She handed out such inspirational knickknacks as ceramic lighthouses, polished stones and painted rocks. “I’ve gone through all kinds of phases,” she said.
On the air, Paulsen could come across as a mischievous frat boy alongside Roberts, the kindhearted house mom. Viewers sometimes interpreted Roberts’ “oh, Eric” sighs and eye-rolls as exasperation.
But they are close friends.
“Eric is family, he really is,” Roberts said. “I cannot begin to explain just how much he means to me and my entire family. He has been a saint to this family. He has been through the rigors with us.”
When Willie Craft died in 2002, Paulsen “was one of the first people through that front door, sobbing,” she said. “He was there to comfort the children. On those occasions where family gather, there was Eric. And my parents just loved him.”
Paulsen’s new foil is Sheba Turk, who takes and tweets more selfies in a single day than Roberts likely posted all of last year. Roberts is a big fan of Turk, as she is of all her soon-to-be-former “Morning News” colleagues.
“Sheba is salt of the earth. Her parents raised a wonderful child. She has that joy of life, and it’s contagious. Sheba is a blessing to our community. What a great light to wake up to every day.
“And, oh yeah, she can stand toe to toe with Eric.”
'The road that I took'
TV talent runs in the Roberts family. Sally-Ann’s younger sister, Robin Roberts, co-hosts ABC's “Good Morning America.”
Early in Sally-Ann’s career at WWL, she was invited to submit an audition tape to the national CBS news team. But Johnson, her WWL boss, counseled her that she still needed “a little bit more seasoning. He said, ‘You just bide your time. You’ll have another shot at it.’
“But you know what happened? I fell in love with New Orleans, and I really didn’t want to leave, especially after my children were born.
“There is an exciting life outside of New Orleans, I’m sure. But this is the road that I took. And I have absolutely no regrets about it. I can’t imagine a better place to raise my children.”
And she didn’t want them to bounce around the country as she had.
“Being an Air Force brat, it was a wonderful experience in that I was able to see so much of the world. I learned so much. But I wanted my children to have a different kind of life.”
Roberts married her current husband, Ron Nabonne, in 2007. The couple lives in New Orleans East.
“Everyone chooses their part of the city,” she said. “I love my neighbors. I’m waiting for more businesses to come back to New Orleans East. But this is it. This is where I plan to stay.”
Her retirement plans don’t include joining former WWL “action reporter” Bill Capo as a French Quarter tour guide.
“First of all, I have flat feet, so I think I’d have trouble keeping up with the tourists,” she said. “My passion goes in other areas.”
Specifically, her passions are mentoring and promoting bone marrow donor registration.
Many years ago, Lucimarian Roberts’ life was changed by a mentor named Wilma Schnegg, who encouraged Lucimarian to become the first member of her family to graduate from college.
“As long as Lucimarian has a descendant on this earth, we will all be able to look back to Wilma Schnegg and say, ‘Thank you. If it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t be here,’ ” Roberts said. “My mother would not have had the life she did had it not been for somebody who saw something in her and encouraged her.”
Sort of like Angela Hill saw something in Sally-Ann that night 41 years ago in Hattiesburg.
Hoping to pass it on, Roberts co-founded the mentoring organization Each One Save One in 1994 with Cathy Harris.
“It only takes one person to change everything, not just for a life, but for several lifetimes," she said. "It’s like throwing a life preserver into the sea of life. The ripples get bigger and bigger further away. I look at mentors as being life preservers. Their legacy goes on for eternity.”
In 2012, Roberts donated the bone marrow used to successfully treat Robin Roberts’ rare cancer. In retirement, Sally-Ann will advocate for more people to register as potential bone marrow donors at BeTheMatch.org.
And as she did so many mornings on TV, she'll spread positivity.
“I’m interested in being part of a love movement in this country. There’s been so much hate, so much animosity, and it’s just grown. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘You cannot extinguish darkness with darkness. You can only extinguish darkness with light. And you can’t fight hate with hate. You can only do it with love.’
“I’m really interested in ministry. Not as an ordained minister, but just going out and spreading the good news of acceptance, of love, and kindness. I have a message, and wherever the good Lord sends me, that’s where I’m going to share it.”