Obituary of Paul D. Roberts
Paul Douglas Roberts, 80, longtime resident of Northport, New York, died November 16, 2023 at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Smithtown from complications related to his longtime bout with Transverse Myelitis. He passed away surrounded by his family and under the care of heroic and compassionate first responders, nurses, and doctors. Paul was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Florence (Marshall) Roberts and Fred Orville Roberts, Jr., on January 16, 1943, and was raised in Findlay, Ohio. Paul graduated from Findlay (OH) High School in 1961, earned a B.S. in Education from The Ohio State University in 1966, and a M.S. in Education from the State University of New York at Potsdam’s Crane School of Music in 1972.
Paul modeled kindness, strength, and humility for his children, grandchildren, friends, and students. He was raised under humble and challenging circumstances by a young mother and father who did their best, with the support of an amazing grandmother, aunts, and uncles. As a teenager, Paul was honored by his Boy Scout troop and was featured in the local newspapers for saving his younger brother’s life in a fire. He helped his family pay the bills by delivering newspapers on his bicycle before school every morning.
Paul was the president of the Findlay High School student council and the center of the varsity football team. A first-generation college student, Paul earned admission to Ohio State, offering him the opportunity of a lifetime to build his musical talent and academic success and enabling him to seek opportunity outside of the small Ohio farming community where he was raised. His maternal grandfather paid his college tuition in exchange for long hours working on the family onion farm during the summers. Paul traveled the country as a member of the Ohio State University Men’s Glee Club and, with three of his best friends, formed a close harmony singing group, The Mellolites, who had their television debut on The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour in 1963.
Paul and his childhood best friend and fellow Mellolite were recruited out of Ohio State to come teach in the rapidly growing suburban enclave of Commack, New York. Paul began his career teaching elementary school music, was the first choral music teacher at the newly opened Sawmill Junior High School, and retired in 1998 as the Commack High School choral director. He and Frances first met at a district-wide music faculty meeting and began a courtship that led to their marriage in 1968. They raised their two children in Northport, celebrated their 50th anniversary with family and friends in 2018, and lived together in loving partnership until Paul’s untimely passing.
Paul and Fran were an institution in Long Island’s music education circles. With Paul’s junior high school students feeding into Fran’s Commack High School South program, generations of Commack kids spent 6 or 7 years making music with Mr. and Mrs. Roberts. The Roberts children grew up surrounded by their parents’ students, who would often come to the house for cast parties and birthday parties to stand around the family’s grand piano and sing show tunes or Christmas carols in four-part harmony. These teacher-student relationships grew into significant and impactful lifelong friendships between Paul, his family, and these “kids,” many of whom themselves became musicians or music educators and cite Paul Roberts as a major influence in their lives and careers. Paul’s warm personality and welcoming smile engaged students from all walks of life, many of whom may not have otherwise chosen music as an activity. His “Sawmill Swings” variety shows were a unique and innovative way to showcase student talents, combining individual performances and whole-cast show tune numbers, sometimes featuring Paul and other teachers in fun and whimsical ways.
If you were to ask everyone in Paul’s life to tell you about his greatest strength, they would say he was one hell of a singer. From the time he stood up to sing an impromptu rendition of “One Meatball” at age 2 in his grandmother’s church in Ohio to his final performance at last year’s Christmas Eve service at the First Presbyterian Church of Northport, Paul Roberts’s tenor voice has been a gift to everyone who heard him sing. After studying under his mentor at Ohio State, Glee Club Director Professor Norman Steiger, Paul went on to perform several leading roles in theater and opera, including Rodolfo in La Bohème and Tony in The Most Happy Fella. He performed on iconic recordings with the Gregg Smith Singers, including 1977’s A Festival of Carols and the soundtrack of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Paul continued to sing throughout his adult life, a fixture for many years in the Old First Presbyterian Church Choir in Huntington, the quartet at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, and the choir at Christ Church of Oyster Bay. Paul spent many summers singing in the Chautauqua Motet Choir, where he was often featured as the tenor soloist before the thousands who gathered in Chautauqua’s amphitheater for worship services. Paul performed as the tenor soloist for many Mozart Requiems, Fauré Requiems, Verdi Requiems, and Handel Messiahs with various Long Island symphonies. He was the tenor soloist for Long Island Philharmonic’s 1986 performance of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass, and he performed the tenor solo at Nassau Symphony’s 1990 Cole Porter Revue. He performed Amazing Grace at funerals for beloved family members and sang major works as the anchor of the tenor section in the Long Island Philharmonic and Long Island Masterworks Chorus under his wife’s baton alongside his father-in-law’s rich baritone voice. But his favorite performances were duets, accompanied by his wife and sung with his children. In recent years, he was heard boldly singing the tenor lines to Christmas carols with his children and grandchildren as part of their Christmas Eve tradition of carol-dialing friends and family on speakerphone around the country.
Paul was a brilliant singer and educator, but he defined himself as a husband and father before all else. He attended every dance and piano recital, soccer and little league game, concert, and theatrical performance throughout his children's academic careers. He loved being a homeowner and spent most of his summers improving the family home on Nautilus Avenue in Northport. He installed a DIY basketball hoop on the garage roof, designed and built the family’s expansive patio and deck, and handcrafted built-in bookshelves and custom moldings on his beloved radial saw. He famously shunned the onslaught of offers from vendors to re-side the cedar-shingled house, spending hours on ladders in the hot sun removing each wooden shingle, which he sanded, stained, and reinstalled. This process took two entire summers, saved the family thousands of dollars, and culminated in one of the largest and most notorious parties ever thrown in Northport: 1984’s “Shingle Flingle.”
Paul taught his children to be avid Yankee and Buckeye fans, rarely missing an Ohio State football game with a can of mixed nuts and a scotch on the rocks (lots of ice!) at the ready. He made the best homemade popcorn in an iron skillet he inherited from his mother, and his grandmother taught him to make amazing bacon, eggs, and pancakes.
In 2006, at the age of 63, Paul suffered a viral attack of transverse myelitis. His mobility declined steadily in the years after this attack, but he continued to enjoy his boat, The Coupon Clipper, and golfing at Chautauqua or Crab Meadow until his body would no longer comply. In 2014, Paul was blessed with the arrival of his three grandchildren, who made him very proud and happy. He spent his final years enjoying laughs, hugs, kisses on the cheek, and songs with his beloved family in his living room or at his children’s homes. Family board games? Not so much, but if the kids rolled the dice for him, he’d play along. His gentle strength and warm smile are emblazoned in the memories of all who knew him, and his legacy lives on not only in his children and grandchildren, but in the hundreds of former students and singers who had the privilege to make music with him.
Paul is survived by his wife of 54 years and 11 months, Frances (Coan) Roberts; his son, Douglas Roberts (Mary); his daughter, Elizabeth Savasta; and his three grandchildren, Sarah Kelsey Roberts, Joshua Paul Savasta, and Ethan Neil Savasta, all of Northport. He is also survived by his younger brother, Jack Stanley Roberts; his nephews Mike McGrath, Jeffrey Johnston, Jr., and Chase Johnston and his niece, Michelle Coan; and by many beloved half-brothers, half-sisters, half-nieces, half-nephews, and great nephews. He is predeceased by his beloved sisters, Gwen McGrath and Kathleen Johnston; his nephew Patrick McGrath; his half-brothers Jon C. Roberts and Kurt Roberts; and his first daughter-in-law, Kelsey Burr.
Visitation will be Tuesday, November 21, from 2:00-4:00 PM and 7:00-9:00 PM at Nolan’s Funeral Home in Northport, New York. A funeral service celebrating Paul’s life will be held at 11:00 AM on Wednesday, November 22, at the First Presbyterian Church of Northport. A private burial for the family will be scheduled at a date to be determined.
In lieu of flowers, Paul’s family requests that donations be made to either the Kennedy Krieger Spinal Institute or to The Norman Steiger Ohio State Men's Glee Club Scholarship Fund