Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Jack Wilbur Roberts

Jack Roberts, Sunshine Skyway project engineer, dies at 73

VALRICO — May 9, 1980, was one of the few days Jack Roberts was running late for work. He stepped out of an elevator to find two grim-faced colleagues waiting for him.

Roberts, who then lived in Tallahassee, was the state's top engineer in charge of the maintenance and repair of bridges. On the way to the office of the secretary of transportation, one of them broke the news: A span of the Sunshine Skyway bridge had collapsed.

Much of Mr. Roberts' life had involved the bridge. He was just 28 in 1966 when the Florida Department of Transportation had made him project engineer of the second Skyway bridge. That southbound span complemented the original two-way bridge, which opened in 1954.

Later that morning in 1980, Mr. Roberts saw the ruins of the Skyway from a helicopter. The freighter that had hit the bridge sat at an angle. Steel archways to the bridge lay in the water 150 feet below, leaving a large hole through which 35 people had plunged to their deaths.

Worse, it was the southbound bridge the Summit Venture hit.

His bridge.

"Shock hit him," said Rosalee Roberts, his wife of 26 years. "He said he thought, 'What kind of monster have I built that did this?' "

Mr. Roberts was a Plant City native, the fifth of six children in a poor family. He graduated from Plant City High and went to work for the DOT, starting as a clerk typist, then as a survey party chief. After a stint in the Army National Guard he returned to the department, where he was assigned to bridge projects in Pinellas County.

That work led to his assignment as project engineer for the southbound Skyway span.

He was eventually promoted to supervise the construction of all roads and bridges in the state. In 1987, Mr. Roberts began a second career with Volkert, Inc., an engineering firm based in Mobile, Ala.

"By nature he was competitive. Jack always aspired to the next position up," said Keith King, a former Volkert CEO who remains chairman of the board. "He put in a lot of effort, and his results were always very good."

He supervised construction of many Volkert projects in the Tampa Bay area.

Mr. Roberts was married twice. Despite his hours, he never missed one of his children's baseball games or other performances, his wife said.

"He would leave work, cheer the boys on and go back to work until 2 or 3 a.m. if required," said Rosalee Roberts, 52.

In 2006, Volkert promoted Mr. Roberts to chief operating officer for the Florida region. Those plans were derailed when he suffered a head injury in a fall that year.

Mr. Roberts died May 13, nearly two weeks after undergoing heart surgery. He was 73.

Though the Skyway disaster haunted him, he had made peace with it. "It took him a little while to admit," his wife said. " 'My bridge did not fall. It was knocked down.' "

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.


Jack Wilbur Roberts

Born: Aug. 2, 1938

Died: May 13, 2012

Survivors: Wife, Rosalee; sons Sid, Chad, Jeff and Phillip; sister Betty; brothers Charles and Ken.

Jack Roberts, Sunshine Skyway project engineer, dies at 73 05/23/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 10:05pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays waste repeated opportunities in 5-3 loss to Blue Jays

    The Heater

    TORONTO — Rays manager Kevin Cash made a case for urgency before Thursday's game, in both actions and words, making significant changes to the structure of the lineup and sincere comments about time running short.

    Trevor Plouffe of the Rays reacts as he pops out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. [Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images]
  2. Spanish PM voices solidarity with Barcelona


    BARCELONA, Spain — Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says his country is mourning in solidarity with the city of Barcelona and other cities in Europe that have been hit by deadly extremist attacks.

    An injured person is treated in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 after a white van jumped the sidewalk in the historic Las Ramblas district, crashing into a summer crowd of residents and tourists and injuring several people, police said. [Associated Press]
  3. Confederate statue: Why Bucs, Lightning, Rays took a stand


    They didn't want another Charlottesville.

    Marc Rodriguez, a member of the "Florida Fight for $15" organization, stands in protest along with other activists demanding the Confederate  monument be removed from the old Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  4. Rep. Larry Ahern gets roughed up by Clearwater City Council

    State Roundup

    It seemed innocuous enough: an "end of session report" from state Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, to the Clearwater City Council.

    Then Ahern got taken to the woodshed.

    Rep. Larry Ahern is vying for a seat on the Pinellas commission.
  5. Hillsborough County erects wooden barrier to protect Confederate monument from vandalism

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Hillsborough County workers began constructing a wooden barrier around the base of the Confederate monument by the old county courthouse Thursday evening.

    A Hillsborough County construction crew erects a wooden barrier around the Confederate monument at the old county courthouse Thursday, out of concern about potential vandalism. [Courtesy of WTSP]