A Lasting Gift for a Late Professor Who Touched the Lives of So Many

Fund Celebrates Dr. Jane Roberts from USF Sarasota-Manatee’s School of Social Work

July 20, 2023

The memories and heartache are still fresh for Claire Curcio. When she begins to speak on a recent video chat about her late sister, beloved USF Sarasota-Manatee social work professor Jane Roberts, her eyes fill with tears.

“I can’t do this without crying,” she says, reaching for a box of Kleenex.

Though seven years older than her sister, Curcio shared the closest of bonds with Roberts from their childhood in Missouri through college in Virginia. They each attended Radford University and later got their doctorates from Virginia Tech. They each became licensed mental health therapists — Roberts a licensed clinical social worker, and Curcio a licensed professional counselor.

The sisters remained in constant touch after Roberts moved south to Florida and began teaching 20 years ago on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, while Curcio taught at Virginia Tech, before settling in Fredericksburg, Va.

Along the way, they even edited one another’s books and papers, and guest-lectured in each other’s classes. “The students didn’t know we were sisters, but we’d tell them at the end and it was always really fun,” Curcio recalls, smiling.

Both worked in the area of grief and loss. And lately, that is what Curcio has been experiencing, as well as many students and faculty members at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, following Roberts’ death in December from cancer.

After serving as an endowed chair in the School of Social Work and teaching on all three USF campuses over the decades, Roberts retired last May. She was diagnosed in the fall with Stage 4 cancer.

Few people beyond family knew of her illness because Roberts chose to keep the news private. As a result, shock and sadness hit those who knew her hard — especially the students who loved her and the colleagues who treasured her friendship and support.

But from that sadness has come an outpouring of emotion and a desire to celebrate Roberts’ legacy. When fellow faculty members heard of her passing, many wanted to donate in her memory. Silvia Blanco, a retired social work professor who worked with Roberts for 17 years and became a close friend, coordinated with the USF Foundation to establish an emergency fund for the money that flowed in.

Blanco also connected Curcio, retired from teaching but still writing books, with the Foundation so the family could make a generous contribution. The result: a new fund to provide financial assistance for students who need to travel to conferences, and for faculty to further their research.

“She was one of the most gentle and kind individuals I’ve ever met,” says Blanco. “Dr. Roberts never said no to whatever was requested of her from above. She was just the sweetest person who never saw ill in anyone. She embodied social work values completely. I was just shocked when I learned she was sick. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening.’ She went so quickly.”

Blanco holds fond memories of Roberts’ gentle Southern mannerisms and her love of country music — especially John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” They shared a hobby of shopping for beads to make into necklaces. And they saw one another almost weekly over the years — including being with Roberts the day she passed in a Bradenton hospice facility, along with USF faculty member Robin Ersing.
“We were like the Southern twin and New York twin,” Blanco says.

She remembers how Roberts always invited students to her house for a party after they graduated. Many of them benefited not just from Roberts’ teaching, but also from her generosity. She never hesitated to use funds from her endowed chair to allow them to travel to conferences. Not surprisingly, past and present students flooded Blanco with calls and emails after word spread of Roberts’ death. That has led to plans for a gathering this summer to celebrate her memory.

Roberts first came to Florida in hopes that the warmer weather would be good for her ailing husband. When he passed away, she remained in the state and found her way to USF Sarasota-Manatee, becoming a respected national authority in her field. Along the way, Roberts developed a varied background as a program manager with hospice, as a medical social work director and as a psychiatric social worker.

Her research included age bias and prejudicial views toward seniors. She was a leader in establishing the first hospice in Montgomery County, Va., and visited hospices in England to further her knowledge. She also had a clinical expertise in hoarding behavior by the elderly and how to best treat that disorder.

"We remember Jane’s huge contributions to social work and to the school over many years," said Riaan van Zyl, PhD, director of the USF School of Social Work. "I have fond memories of her, and her friendliness and kindness will always stay with me."

Curcio had plans to be with her sister during her chemotherapy treatments, but she suffered a tear in her aorta while shopping in Virginia and had to be rushed by medical helicopter to the hospital. That made it impossible to see Roberts in person in the final months and weeks, though they kept in regular contact by phone and Zoom. Curcio’s daughter, Robin, remained with her in intensive care, while her son, Scott, a Floridian, stayed with his aunt in hospice.

“We were going to write a paper together,” Curcio says, her words trailing off.

Instead, she takes comfort in knowing her sister’s memory will live on in perpetuity at a university she loved — and that loved her back.


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