Why I Give: Barry Zurell Roberts

Contact: Amie Heasley
Barry Roberts holding his camera looking out over campus.

“I have thousands of photos from my days at WMU. I used to go to parties or social gatherings and take photos, develop them and then I’d go to the next event to ask students if they wanted to buy any prints. This was before digital photography.” —Barry Z. Roberts, BS ‘84

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“What a great day to be a Bronco!” might as well be this alum’s signature. Wherever Barry Z. Roberts, BS ′84, goes, he wears his WMU pride on his sleeve. If he isn’t in a suit, he’ll most likely be dressed in his Bronco best.

“I grew up on Western’s campus,” he says. “The education I received was so much more than academics. I gained knowledge socially, politically, philosophically, spiritually and emotionally.”

Now retired from a long and rewarding career with General Motors, Roberts’ journey began as a student in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program. He chose WMU not only for its location and size but also for its engineering department.

“I had a couple of drafting classes in high school, and so I thought drafting and design would be a great fit for me,” he says. “Believe it or not, I really wanted to be a chemical engineer.”

With courses ranging from graphics, drafting and computer-aided design to physics, chemistry and calculus, what’s now the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences prepared Roberts for multiple disciplines.

“After graduation I should’ve ended up at a drafting firm, but my true calling was the automotive industry,” he says. Roberts held several positions during his tenure at the GM Technical Center, most recently serving as the pilot for an agile robot called SERG, which was used to navigate areas deemed unsafe for humans.

Still going for the brown and gold

Roberts dressed up in the residence hall as a student in the '80s.As a first-generation college student with five siblings, Roberts worked as a resident advisor in Hoekje Hall, which helped him cover the cost of room and board. He was an assistant director at French Hall and Ernest Burnham Hall, too, and worked other various jobs at Western, including checking IDs and becoming a building supervisor at today’s Read Fieldhouse. It’s also when he leveraged what he fondly refers to as his former “side hustle.”

“I have thousands of photos from my days at WMU,” he says. “I used to go to parties or social gatherings and take photos, develop them and then I’d go to the next event to ask students if they wanted to buy any prints. This was before digital photography.”

Roberts still likes to share his nostalgic images on social media. His passion for photography shows his love for WMU and allows him to stay connected with fellow alumni.

Since his retirement, Roberts has neither slowed down nor waned in his enthusiasm for the Broncos. Along with being a frequent flyer at home and away sporting events, he is also steadily working on completing a bucket list.

“I plan to visit every state in the U.S. and all seven continents,” he says. “I have a handful of states and three continents to go, and when I’m on vacation, of course, I’m wearing a WMU t-shirt.”

While there are too many faculty and staff members at Western who impacted Roberts to list, a few examples include Jethro “Jaye” Johnson, Dr. Benjamin Wilson, Ron Winter, Chuck Comer and Kathy Beauregard. The relationships he built at the University inspired him to make a planned gift.

“I’m often asked why I support WMU, and to that question I reply, ‘Because of the people I met along the way,’” he says. “I had the privilege of meeting and learning from so many amazing people—students, faculty and staff of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds.”

Roberts is donating a percentage of his trust to the Onyx Society of Western Michigan University, an organization that builds community among all Black and African American alumni and also provides student scholarships. He previously served as the vice president and is now the society’s historian.

Roberts uses his photos from life at Western in the '80s as a way to connect with alumni.

“I couldn’t have completed my degree without financial assistance,” he says, “so my hope with this gift is to ensure that more students like me receive the resources they need to graduate. WMU was integral to my life, and I’m grateful I can help the University continue its mission.”  

As for current Broncos, the proud alumnus advises: “There will be many obstacles placed in front of you. You can overcome these roadblocks by going through them, going over them or going around them. Just make sure your goals are completed.

“And if you can give back one day, you should,” Roberts adds. “All of us should, because WMU is a fantastic institution of higher learning.” ■