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Through bombs and a flood, it’s been a good life

By Maura Wery

It is hard to imagine someone being as positive as Sybil Roberts is, knowing what she has been through. The small, smiling and bright-eyed English woman doesn’t look like the kind of person who lived through World War II air raids, lost everything in the 1951 Manhattan flood, battled cancer multiple times and then lost her husband to the same disease. 

To put it plainly, Roberts is the truest kind of a survivor. She lives as positively as her situation allows.

She is 87 years old, but looks about 60. Her favorite color is pink, and she never wears dark hues. Her red, curly hair is short and always styled, and she wears make-up every day.

She is accompanied by her dog, Ginger, who usually stands at Roberts’ feet, tail wagging. Roberts also shares her Riley home with her youngest daughter, Joy.

Her small house looks bigger on the inside and is filled with memories. The china cabinets are packed full of plates and cups from different areas of England. On the wall there is a spoon collection. Next to that, a thimble collection.

A small shelf is covered in photos capturing some of the best moments of Roberts’ life. One shows her as a child in England. Another, with her husband on their wedding day. And others include her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But it’s both good and bad memories that make Roberts the person she is today.

The bombs fall

Roberts grew up in Ipswich, England, with her mother, father and younger brother. She was 14 when World War II started. That was 73 years ago, yet Roberts remembers the time vividly.

“It was a scary time,” said Roberts. “There were lots of air raids. I lost all the windows in my home and, at one point, I lost a friend I had worked with in the war effort.”

Roberts’ family went through hardships during the war. They lived off of government rations, built an air raid shelter in their backyard, and tried to stay safe in a war zone.

“Buzz bombs were the worst,” Roberts said.

Roberts describes the bombs as small, black, bombs and let off a buzzing sound as they went by. They were also unpredictable in where they landed.

“My father always said that if we heard them that someone was going to get the hell blown out of them,” said Roberts. “They were scarier than the bombs dropping. I don’t really know how we kept from being taken over. We could see our boys shooting at the Germans all the time.”

Even in the hostile environment, Roberts found small joys. She got a job working in a factory during the war effort. She made the equivalent of $1.50 a week, but for Roberts, it wasn’t about the money as much as it was about feeling independent.

“It was fun,” Roberts said of working in the factory. “It was fun to be free.” Roberts took the bus, walked or rode her bike to work and other places, listened to the radio (or, as she called it, “the wireless”) and lived without a television and telephone.

“It was just a different time,” said Roberts. “I even used to sew my own dresses by hand.”


A date with an intimidating Yank

In 1942, Roberts met her husband, Richard. She admits their union almost didn’t even happen.

“It was a blind date, and I told my friend I wasn’t going to go through with it,” said Roberts. “My friend went, ‘Oh no, you’re going!’ So I went.” Roberts admits that she was very intimidated by her future husband, who was one of the American soldiers stationed in England.

“There were lots of rumors going on about them,” said Roberts. “I was terrified.”

Roberts said that her husband was good-looking, but she had vowed that she would never marry an American. Roberts didn’t see her husband for some time after that first blind date, but they eventually reunited, and the vow she made was broken. On May 15, 1945, Roberts and Richard were married.

“Everybody was happy,” said Roberts of her wedding day. “Everyone was celebrating the end of the war, I felt like they were celebrating my wedding, too.”

After marrying Richard, Roberts started her trek to America in February.

“It was such a process to get over to the States,” said Roberts. “We had to get a lot of papers signed, and the U.S. had to sign a visa.”

Roberts traveled to the United States on the ship The Queen Mary along with around 2,000 other British women and their children. The women were among those often referred to as “G.I. brides.”

Roberts said that adjusting to life in America was difficult. 

“I gave up a lot of things,” said Roberts. “I gave up my country. I gave up my parents. I missed the sea a lot.”


To a flooded Kansas

Roberts said that neither she nor her husband had very much money, but they made do for the first part of their marriage. Her husband, originally from Kansas, wanted to be somewhere close to home. Richard became a member of the Riley County Police Department, and the couple settled in their first home in Colorado Street in Manhattan. But they were soon met with an unforeseen tragedy.

The great flood of 1951 started on July 13. The Kansas River and Big Blue Flooded together and by the end of it, Manhattan’s downtown business district was under 8 feet of water.

Roberts’ home on Colorado Street was one of many in that area that went under. Roberts recounts the flood as being terrifying.

“We didn’t have any warning,” said Roberts. “My husband came home from work that morning and went to bed. Then, soon after, there was water coming down the street.”

Roberts, her 6-week-old baby, and her family members who were visiting from England, were taken from the home by boat while her younger brother and Richard swam to safety.

Roberts and her husband lost everything. Roberts’ visiting family had brought many childhood items, pictures from home and other personal items with them.

Roberts said all of those things were lost in the flood.

“The only thing I could take with me was the baby and a handbag,” said Roberts. “The one thing of value we did had was a set of silver, and it got stolen.”


Life in Riley

After the flood, the couple moved to Wamego for a few years, but in 1967, Richard received a job as a correctional officer at a camp outside of Riley. Sick of the commute every day, he bought a plot and built the house the family would live in on Iowa Street in Riley.

Roberts worked as a homemaker. She took each day as it came and spent time raising her three children and taking care of her home.

Until 1997, Roberts lived her life in relatively normal fashion in her white house on Iowa Street, but soon that changed. Richard began to decline in health.

“I took care of him for awhile,” said Roberts. “Then he started to bleed and we took him to the hospital.”

Richard was rushed into surgery, and the cause of the bleeding was found. Richard had colon cancer.

“It was a huge shock,” said Roberts. “He never got better after the surgery and passed at 82 years old.”

After Richard’s death, Roberts fell into the first real dark patch in her life.

“For a year, I really didn’t do anything,” Roberts said. “I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to do anything.”

But Roberts knew that her husband wouldn’t want her to be depressed. “He would have wanted me to live,” she said.


Living with cancer

And live is exactly what Roberts did. She kept herself busy by playing bridge at the Seniors Center and helping clean up after the games. She collects things, embroiders pictures, and spends time with her three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She shops online and plays computer games. She also finds time to write poetry about her life.

Roberts herself also has battled cancer. She has fought off bladder cancer five times and also a small bout of skin cancer. Even through a disease that claimed the life of her husband she still remains positive about her outcome.

“I mean, I’m still here!” she said, laughing.

Roberts acknowledges that her life has been an interesting whirlwind, but through it all she said she has just tried to work through every situation as it comes and maintain a upbeat attitude.

“I think my experiences have made me stronger,” said Roberts. “Sometimes in life you just have to take what you get and do what you can with it.”

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