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Caught in the middle

5/1/2019

As mayor, Roberts saw the benefits of, and resistance to, development.

Former Johnston mayor Mary Ann Roberts has lived most of her life in the same home.

Laughing comes easily to Mary Ann Roberts, but don’t let the diminutive, white-haired 80-something-year-old fool you. She is a force to be reckoned with. While serving as Johnston’s mayor from 1980-1984, Roberts was one of only two female mayors in the metro area. She was no stranger to controversy while standing up for herself, her city council and her community.

Mary Ann’s family moved into the house where she lives on N.W. Beaver Drive when she was 6 years old. For a time, she lived with her husband, Charles, near Drake University, where they were both students. But after her mother passed away, the couple bought Roberts’ sister’s share of the house, and she has lived there since.

The couple passionately followed current events, and it was her husband, a lawyer, who encouraged Mary Ann to get into politics. But it didn’t take much coaxing.

“I was all for it,” she remembers. “I was always a feisty redhead.”

Roberts’ hair color may have changed, but the coffee table book offerings in her living room suggest that her passion for politics remains the same.

Johnston was changing during Roberts’ tenure as mayor. The municipality was, as it is today, divided into two parts with Camp Dodge and what was formerly Pioneer dividing it. People, too, were divided on what they wanted for the city, with the dividing line seeming to be Merle Hay Road.

Roberts was from the eastern, older part of town, but initially the new development tended to focus more on the west side.

“There was a lot of complaining about the growth,” she remembers, especially from her area of town. “Some segments wanted to be part of the Golden Circle — Des Moines. We were fighting for our own individuality.”

The opposition included many of Roberts’ friends and neighbors, and they would “tell me what they thought,” she laughs.

Yet Roberts saw the inevitability of the progress and the benefits to the city. Seeing both sides sometimes left her conflicted.

“It’s my biggest curse,” she says. “I can see each side, but then you have to come together with yourself in the middle.”

Growth soon happened in all directions, and the former mayor can quickly list off what little remains unchanged from her childhood. Her grandfather’s property was once expansive in the area of her home, but it has been developed. The area used to have a decidedly rural feel and a gravel road in front.

“My sister and I would walk to the river,” she says, adding that the Rittgers family (her maiden name) owned a lot of land in the area. Her forefathers’ presence is still there with the Rittger Cemetery practically in her backyard, its faded sign hanging crookedly from its fence among the overgrown underbrush of the area.

“But you can’t hold back growth,” she says, with mixed feelings.

“I feel it has been positive for the town, maybe just not for myself,” she smiles with a hint of sadness in her voice. ♦

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