June 12, 2000
Volume 52, No. 35
A Yerkes institution from the beginning
By Eric Rangus
On June 8, Judy Roberts celebrated an anniversary. Her 41st. More than a year before John F. Kennedy was elected president she began her employment at Emory.
It was a steamy summer day in 1959 when Roberts, then Judy Adams, walked into the Yerkes Center to begin her first day of work at her first full-time job.
Yerkes was quite a bit different back then. First of all, it was located in Orange Park, Fla., just south of Jacksonville. Its initial affiliation was with Yale Univer-sity, and it didn't become a part of Emory until 1956, three years before Roberts came onboard. While pretty advanced for its time, the campus' two two-story buildings were a different world compared to today. It was not air conditioned, for instance, and its area was a fraction of Yerkes' current size.
Freshly graduated from Clay High School, the then-18-year-old Roberts looked at Yerkes not as a life- or career-defining place, but rather as a convenience.
"At that time, there weren't a lot of things available without going into Jacksonville," she said. "The primate center, which was known then as the Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology, was one of the places to look for a job. There was an opening, I applied, and got the job."
That job was one that would make today's worker scrunch an eyebrow; Roberts was hired as a dictaphone typist.
Prior to today's technological advances, data were recorded by dictaphones onto records that resembled old 45s. To do her job, Roberts would slide these discs into a transcriber (similar to the way you feed a CD-ROM into a computer, only the transcribers stood alone and computers were barely a dream), strap on earphones and type up the contents.
"We didn't have the volume we have now, even if it was time consuming." Roberts said. "I guess it's on the same rim as bread being 59 cents a loaf and now it's more, but we make more money than we did then. It equals out. People just grow with these things. You don't realize what you have to do until you don't do it anymore."
The center's all-paper records were kept in a fireproof office, and when Yerkes began computerizing in 1984, Roberts was a part of the process from the beginning.
After her humble beginnings attached to the dictaphone, Roberts steadily rose through the ranks. From typist to research technician to animal records to the finance office to business manager, her current position, to which she was promoted in 1989. When she first entered the business office in 1970, it consisted of two people working in grants; Roberts was one of them. Now it encompasses about a dozen people working in reception, payroll, travel and purchasing.
Being a part of that growth from the beginning is what Roberts sees as one of the most satisfying things about her career at Yerkes.
"More than anything, it's just watching the growth. Even within the business office's structure itself," she said. "When I first began in the business office, I think we had 20 grants. Now we have over 100. And, of course, we've had to hire more people."
Yerkes' designation as a National Institutes of Health Regional Primate Research Center prompted its relocation to Atlanta in 1965. Roberts' husband, Jimmy, whom she married in 1960, had been hired as assistant superintendent at Yerkes and that meant relocation. So the Robertses and 3-year-old daughter Debra moved north. Com-bined, wife and husband have invested 78 years at Emory.
Jimmy Roberts was promoted to superintendent in 1969, and after that the family moved into a house overlooking the Yerkes campus parking lot. Not only has Roberts' career had the stability most people only dream of, but she gets to walk two minutes to work.
"I enjoy my work, but I do have other hobbies," she said. Some of those include collecting antiques, traveling-particularly to her home state of Florida-and spending time with her daughter, son-in-law, Kevin, and her three granddaughters.
While working at Yerkes may appear exotic to outsiders, it's actually pretty standard. The front part of the research center, where Roberts works, could be located in any downtown or Buckhead complex. Suffice to say, the center's most well known residents are not a big part of Roberts' day. But Roberts is not completely inexperienced with the animals.
In a recent issue of the Yerkes Bulletin, Roberts related a story from 1971 where she and her husband had to drive from Atlanta to New York with a juvenile orangutan named Yakut in tow.
Since it was winter, the Robertses had to buy baby clothes to keep him warm. They also had to keep him occupied and quiet when room service came by since the hotel didn't allow pets. Roberts flushed the toilet to cover up any noise. "After that experience, I knew what smugglers feel like," she said.
But that sort of intrigue has been the exception rather than the rule. Instead, Roberts career has been devoted to ensuring the business of primate research runs smoothly, rather than running around with the primates themselves. That career has come with several honors, earning an Award of Distinction, for example.
Also, upon an employee's 25th anniversary at Emory, she gets to attend a luncheon with President Bill Chace in her honor. Roberts has attended four such events under two presidents (the first was James Laney), since employees are entitled to return on their 30th, 35th and 40th anniversaries.
"Even though I've been with the same institution, it wasn't like I've been doing the exact same thing for 41 years," Roberts said. Then she paused. "But I never expected to stay working in one place this long."