2019 | News

Cokie Roberts Celebrated as ‘National Treasure’ for Commitment to Journalism, Family

Hundreds mourn Bethesda journalist at memorial service in D.C.

Cokie Roberts service - outside church

After a memorial service for Cokie Roberts on Saturday, friends and family talked on the sidewalk outside the church. Cokie's husband, Steve, is at center right, facing the camera.

Photos by Andrew Schotz

A memorial service for longtime journalist Cokie Roberts on Saturday highlighted her commitment to family and faith, as well as her humanity and pursuit of truth.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a lifelong friend, called Roberts “a national treasure” whose death is “a great loss for America.”

Roberts, who lived in Bethesda for decades with her husband, Steve, died on Tuesday at age 75. Her family said her death was due to complications from breast cancer.

Cokie Roberts was a journalist with NPR for more than four decades. She also worked for ABC News as a political commentator and chief congressional analyst for “This Week,” which she co-anchored for six years with Sam Donaldson.

She and Steve Roberts were married for 53 years. They have two children and six grandchildren.

A mass of Christian burial held Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., drew hundreds of people, including Pelosi, Donaldson and many who knew Roberts through ABC and NPR.

At a reception on Friday evening, photos of Roberts’ life were projected on a wall at the National Press Club ballroom as mourners gathered to talk about her life.

“She was, for so many, a wise woman of faith,” Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said during Saturday’s service. “She called on us to be our better selves and she was quick to point out when we behaved as our lesser selves. She attempted to heal conflicts and occasionally made people realize how childish we were acting in the midst of our incessant squabbles.”

Later, Gregory added, “She challenged all of us to work together for the building up of this nation and our church and for the increase of everyone. She was unafraid of bishop or political figure and she delighted in letting both know that fact.”

Pelosi said her family and Roberts’ have had a bond for decades that is now in a third generation.

Pelosi’s father, Tommy D’Alesandro, served in Congress with Roberts’ father, Hale Boggs.

Boggs was the House majority leader in 1972 when a plane he was in crashed on a trip to Alaska. His body was never found. Roberts’ mother, Lindy Boggs, won a special election for her husband’s seat.

Pelosi said she met Roberts when her husband, Paul, was a classmate of Roberts’ brother, Tommy Boggs, at Georgetown University.

Pelosi’s son, Paul, went to school with Roberts’ son, Lee.

Pelosi speaks
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shared memories of Cokie Roberts on Saturday during a memorial service.

“Cokie was raised in a family that believed public service was a noble calling,” Pelosi said. “Cokie acted upon those values throughout her entire life.”

“She said that she was the only one in her family that did not run for public office,” Pelosi added, “and she wanted journalism to be her public service, and indeed it was. With the knowledge and understanding developed as a daughter of the Congress, she illuminated the workings of Congress in the fairest possible way, with respect for all views, for people across America.”

Steve Roberts, a longtime journalist who writes a column for Bethesda Magazine, shared stories of their early life together and of her last days.

The couple met in 1962, when they were teenagers.

“I knew immediately that I had met an extraordinary person,” he said, “but I was a typical guy, petrified of commitment. It took me four years to finally propose, and as Cokie used to joke, half joke, I did it by saying, ‘Oh, all right, Cokie.’ But of course, it was the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Steve said Cokie was passionate about wanting to help others, including young women trying to navigate the world of journalism.

“In the 1960s, the ladder of opportunity in journalism was largely closed to her and other women,” Steve said.

Even though she ended up writing six best-selling books, he said, male editors told her early on, when the couple moved to New York, that they could not hire a female writer.

Steve also got a big laugh with a story about the couple’s time in New York.

He said Cokie was depressed and found it hard to get dressed some days. One day, to return a wedding gift at a store, she put on a coat over her nightgown and headed out.

At the store, she ran into the husband of the couple who gave the Robertses the gift. She figured she was safe, because a husband would not recognize the gift, but he called his wife and she did.

The husband said there were no hard feelings about the returned gift, and invited her to go with him to cover the inauguration of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, which she did.

Steve said that at the event, the TV lights were hot and people kept offering to take Cokie’s coat.

“I’m not going to do the full Cokie here, but she kept replying, ‘Oh, I’m from the South. I’m always hot,’” he said.

Cokie NPC
The ballroom at the National Press Club was crowded on Friday evening with people celebrating the life of Cokie Roberts.

After the couple had their first child, they moved to California, then Greece, where Cokie started working as a radio reporter. She filed many reports about the collapse of the Greek military junta when other correspondents, including Steve, were trapped in Cyprus, covering a coup.

When the couple returned to Washington, Steve heard about NPR and called on his friend Nina Totenberg to help Cokie get her foot in the door.

“That’s the first time I saw the old girls’ network at work,” he said.

Steve said Cokie spent her final days getting care from the National Institutes of Health.

One nurse, named Judith, sparked one of Cokie’s last moments of joy. Cokie had bugged her to see photos of Judith’s two children. Finally, Judith shared them.

“Cokie’s face just lit up with that incandescent smile we have all loved for so long,” Steve said. ‘Judith,’ she exclaimed, ‘what beautiful children,’ and the two of them embraced.

“That moment captures the Cokie I’ll remember most — caring about someone else, helping them feel good about themselves, opening her heart and her arms and making the world around her a better, brighter place.

“What a beautiful smile. What a beautiful spirit. What a beautiful life.”