February 2, 2005

Roberts '38 Dies at 89

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One of the central tenets of the Cornell polo team is its familial nature. It’s something that is espoused and embedded into the steep and storied tradition of the program. Such an environment was created and promoted by former head coach Stephen Roberts ’38, who treated the team as his family and furthered this notion, following games on Saturday nights, by inviting the players over for dinner.

“Cornell Polo is a family and that’s the way he treated the team,” said current head coach David Eldredge ’81.

Roberts, affectionately and aptly known to many as the father of Cornell polo, died on Jan. 21 at the age of 89.

Since captaining Cornell to its first national championship in 1937, Roberts became a figurehead and an institution, leaving an indelible mark on Cornell polo. Reverently referred to as “Doc,” Roberts coached the team from 1947 until he retired from the University in 1972. During his tenure, the team made 14 appearances in the national championship game, winning eight of them. Apart from his great success on the field, Roberts wrote a book about Cornell polo entitled An Autobiographical History of Collegiate Polo and its Players at Cornell University, 1919-1972 and Beyond. His contributions to the program merited his induction into the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990.

Known not just within the Cornell community, Roberts had a tremendous influence on intercollegiate polo. Perhaps the most significant impact he had on the sport was the introduction of the concept of split strings. This reform called for teams to rotate ponies in between chukkers, thereby reducing the home team’s advantage. However, more significantly, this system doesn’t force teams to transport their own horses and makes the sport more accessible to those who don’t have enough money to own horses of their own. Roberts travelled throughout the United States starting programs, lending advice and helping fundraise. The Toronto Polo Club, a thriving program now, was started by him on one of his many teaching and organizing campaigns. His accomplishments and presence led to his introduction into the U.S. Polo Hall of Fame and the moniker “Dean of College Polo.”

Roberts was born in Indianopolis, Ind. in 1915, but grew up in Hamburg, N.Y. where his father, James Roberts ’12, had a veterinary medicine practice. Upon graduating Cornell with a doctorate in veterinary medicine, Roberts taught that subject for a couple of years in Kansas and earned a Masters degree there. He returned to Cornell as a member of the faculty in 1942, became a full professor in 1946 and chaired the Department of Large Animal Medicine twice. His academic credentials include authoring over 150 scientific articles and a textbook entitled “Veterinary Obstetrics and Genital Diseases.” Never relenting on his passion for horses, Roberts helped pioneer and develop equine research at Cornell.

Even though it’s been 30 years since Roberts has been at Cornell as a professor and coach, he remains well known throughout the University.

“Whether it be in the vet school or in the athletic department, he was well known and well respected. He has accomplished so many great things not just on the field, but for polo in general,” Eldredge said.

Archived article by Jon Hausner
Sun Staff Writer