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CLARA FISH ROBERTS

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Date submitted: October 24, 2006
Gift: General Gift
Location on plaza map: A2
Areas of Achievement: Community Building, Education
 
“Dr. Collingwood later said, ‘If the school amounts to anything, you may be proud of this some day’.”—Clara Fish Roberts recalled a professor commenting on her status as the first student to enroll at the University of Arizona (Flaccus).

Clara Fish Roberts was born on September 3, 1876 in Tucson, into one of Tucson’s prominent families long before Arizona became a state. She was one of four children born to Edward Nye Fish and Maria Wakefield Fish. Her father was a merchant and landowner, and her mother was a teacher. Her mother, one of the first female teachers in Tucson, taught at the Congress Street School from 1873 until 1874, the year of her marriage. Although she left the teaching profession, Fish’s involvement in the area of education continued. She raised money to build a school and she helped to ensure that underprivileged children received an education.
Raised by a mother with an interest in education, Roberts pursued a post-secondary degree. After attending public schools in Tucson, Roberts briefly attended Mills College in Oakland, California, until health problems compelled her to return to Tucson. Upon her return, she heard about the opening of a new university. On October 3, 1891, her mother accompanied her to the newly-constructed University of Arizona. That day, she became the first student to matriculate at the university, the first event in a lifelong chain of primordial accomplishments (in 1897, she was a founding member of the University Alumni Association and in 1917 she became the first woman elected to the Tucson School Board). After she was admitted, she chose to study mining over agriculture (these two majors were her only options, as the university only offered classes in these subjects).
During her time at the university, Roberts and her classmates engaged in various extra-curricular activities, such as playing baseball and dancing. In a speech by Roberts in 1918, she reminisced about her university days:
“In our homes, the time was spent in conversation, which was of necessity, an accomplishment. We gathered up the rugs and sang popular songs and danced. Picnics were popular, in Sabino Canyon the usual destination, with a stop on our return at Fort Lowell, where wax candles were nailed to the adobe walls for light, and a 2- or 3-piece or even 5-piece orchestra awaited us. At midnight all would climb into or on top of an old stagecoach, as many as 22 or 25 at a time, and return home, usually singing. A tired but happy group” (Flaccus).

Roberts recalled as well the inequality that existed between the male and female students at the university. She remembered that the best dormitory on campus was reserved for the boys, relegating the girls to older and smaller accommodations. In the speech cited above, Roberts explained, “You see, few of these early day legislators thought of girls going to college, as there was no provision made for girls” (Flaccus).
Although she did not graduate with the first UA class, she eventually graduated with a B.S. in 1897. Despite having a degree in mining, she started teaching after graduation as a substitute teacher in Tucson public schools, and she later served as principal of the Congress Street School. In 1901, she became a teacher at Northern Arizona Normal School in Flagstaff (now Northern Arizona University). She taught at the school until 1905, when she returned to Tucson as a result of her mother’s poor health. That same year, Roberts married Frederick Carlyle Roberts, a civil engineer, with whom she had four children, one of whom died within a year after birth.
Roberts became a devoted mother and housewife. Her daughter, Virginia Roberts Flaccus, remembered her mother teaching her about astronomy as they lay outside in the hot summer nights. There were no air conditioners at the time, so the family slept outside to stay cool. Roberts was responsible for making 15 beds a day—first the family would sleep outside, then move to the sleeping porch as the sun came up, and eventually they would migrate inside as the sun became too hot.
However, Roberts’ accomplishments were not limited to the domestic realm. As mentioned above, in 1917, Roberts became the first woman elected to the Tucson School Board. She served a three-year term, and was president of the board for two of those years. A brave humanitarian, Roberts took an active role in helping people suffering from tuberculosis. Despite risk of contagion, Roberts sought out people suffering from the illness and helped them find others in the same condition. Roberts also courageously fought to protect the Old Main building when Dr. Alfred Atkinson (UA president from 1937-1947) wanted to destroy it. As Roberts’ daughter recalled, “Dr. Atkinson could have killed her, but she saved Old Main” (Flaccus).
Throughout most of her adult life, Roberts was active in several organizations in Tucson, such as Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters, the Tucson Women’s Club, the American Association of University Women, and the Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society. After decades of community involvement, she left the city in 1959, when she moved to Sherman, Texas, to live with her daughter. It was here that Roberts died on October 26, 1965 at the age of 89. The story of Roberts’ pioneering accomplishments reminds us of the many unsung heroes who have shaped Tucson’s history.

Information Sources:
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Clara Fish Roberts. Arizona Historical Society. Portraits—Roberts, Clara Fish (Mrs.
Frederick G. —[Photo file]. Tucson. Photo 13810.

Flaccus, Virginia Roberts. Interview with Margaret Mitchell. Oral History Interview with
Virginia Roberts Flaccus, Daughter of Clara Fish Roberts. Arizona Historical
Society, Tucson. 25 April 1984. Call number AV 0395.

Henry, Bonnie. “Bonnie Henry: University Women’s Local Branch Has Stellar
Herstory.” Arizona Daily Star. 27 November 2006. 18 February 2008
.

“History of Association.” The University of Arizona Alumni Association. U of Arizona,
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