SARASOTA -- Robin Roberts has many identities: ABC's "Good Morning America" anchor. Two-time cancer survivor. Former woman sportscaster. Role model for African American women. Proudly gay. Possibly the nicest person in America.
Roberts displayed her warmth, story-telling ability and wisdom Monday during an engaging pre-Town Hall Lecture Series chat with the media and several local high school students, including Lakewood Ranch High senior Dominick Reynoso, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center.
Roberts later gave her lecture before an enthusiastic and sold-out crowd.
After growing up in Mississippi and attending Southeastern Louisiana University, Roberts was a sports anchor for local TV and radio stations. Roberts then was a sportscaster on ESPN for 15 years. She became co-anchor
on "Good Morning America" in 2005.
Roberts was asked her reaction to the rudeness and anger in the presidential debates.
"Personally, I remember asking my mother why she thought her four children have done well in life," Roberts said. "She answered, 'Because I taught you children manners,' I think that goes a long way. People are very passionate who are running for the highest office in this country. Everyone has a different opinion on how to move the country forward. But it does get uncomfortable when it gets off color. I was thinking, 'We want our children to watch this process and how do you explain to a young person some of the things being said?'"
Roberts said it wasn't her intention in 2007 when first diagnosed with cancer to share the news with the world.
"Like many, I was shocked to hear I had cancer," Roberts said. "There was no history in our family. I learned that 80 percent of people diagnosed with cancer have no family history. I was going to stay private with it and I did for quite a bit of time. But my mother, may she rest in peace, said, 'Honey, make your mess your message. You are going to have resources. You are going to have some things that others will not have so be their voice. So when I was clutching Diane Sawyer's hand and saying, 'I have breast cancer,' a great number of people who had put it off, had mammograms. I made sure anything that I shared on the air could be helpful to other people."
In 2012 she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder, which she believes developed as a result of her aggressive treatment for breast cancer.
"When I was diagnosed with MDS, I looked to the heavens and said, 'I made my mess my message one time, do I have to do it again?" Roberts recalled. "But I have been grateful that many people have benefited from it."
After Roberts sat down with the media Monday, she was taken by surprise when Ringling School of Art and Design student Elizabeth Gray presented her with a portrait done in oil Gray had done after reading the TV anchor's book, "Everybody's Got Something."
"I am blown away," Gray said after Roberts praised her for capturing her perfectly. "I couldn't have asked for a better response from her."
Roberts talked about the grace and elegance of the late Nancy Reagan, who passed away Sunday, and how that contrasted sharply with the kind of behavior in today's presidential debates.
She also talked about her decision to go public with cancer struggles, finally believing that if her story could persuade others to get cancer checks, it was something she had to do.
"I think it was great to see how she handled questions and how she was able to take something and make a story out of it," said Reynoso, who, when Roberts asked what he is planning to study in college, replied international relations and economics.
"She makes you feel you are part of the story she is telling," Reynoso said.
Mayada Elshiek of Booker High School, who like Roberts is a woman of color, said she will never forget Roberts' interest in her. Roberts seemed to want to meet and get to know everyone.
"She was so sweet and nice and just completely relatable," said Elshiek, who plans on majoring in biology and minoring in literature.
"I read about her story a little bit, and she seemed like such an inspiration as a fellow woman of color," Elshiek said.
Over the past 35 years, the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall has presented dynamic speakers, while raising more than $8 million to support the Verman Kimbrough Memorial Library at the Ringling College of Art and Design and for student scholarships. In addition, RCLA has pledged $3.75 million to the construction of a new library on the Ringling College of Art and Design's campus.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.