By Tina Roberts-Crary
My father, Phil Roberts (1922-2008), was born at a time when rural north-central Louisiana knew all too well what the 30’s era Depression was going to bring. It would only add more ugliness to what was already going on in his home state. Born the fifth of nine children, Phil learned at an early age that life’s adventure would be built on hard work, dreams, and devotion to family. Phil met the love of his life, Thiola Auzenne (1925-1975) when they were both in high school. Thiola knew that Phil was about to join the U.S. Army, and she was not about to lose the man with whom she wanted to spend her life. Thiola was a woman who always spoke her mind. At 17 years old, she did just that when she asked 19-year-old Phil to marry her. Phil was happy to oblige, and they were married just before he left for the Army in December of 1942.
The U.S. Army transferred Phil to Seattle in 1946, where he and Thiola lived with their two young daughters. Phil’s 21 years of military service included deployments to Germany, Japan, and Korea. The young Roberts family spent the last ten years of Phil’s military service stationed at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McCord). By 1963, Phil and Thiola’s family had grown to six children.
1963 was a turning point in the Roberts family when Thiola pleaded with Phil not to reenlist. Consequently, Phil retired from the military in March of 1964. Soon after, he was hired to work at the legendary company known for its artisan water: the Olympia Brewing Company. Phil Roberts became the first African American to work at the plant.
The Olympia Brewing company hired a headhunter to find the “perfect” Black employee. Paul Knight, a retired Olympia Brewery manager, stated, “Phil’s hiring started right from the top.” The Board approved the decision of Directors to hire a Black person, and Brewery President Bobby Schmidt subsequently contacted a headhunter agency for the candidate search. The headhunters located several people for interviews. Joe Dougherty and Rod Hansen were involved in the interview process at this point.
“Phil was the most researched employee the Brewery had ever hired. He wasn’t the first Black to work for the Brewery, but he was the first Black hired to work at the plant. There was a Black individual who worked in sales and advertising for the Los Angeles area. But because your dad would be the first Black to be hired for the plant, it was a totally different situation from the salesperson in Los Angeles because your dad had to work directly with all the whites at the plant. Your dad was a pacesetter for other Blacks that would come after him,” said Paul.
“Another thing the Brewery management interview team liked about your father was that he had proven himself with an outstanding military career,” Paul added.
After extensive interviewing, my father satisfied all the company’s questions. He left no doubt that he was the man for the job. My father worked as a filter machine operator at the Brewery from April 1964 until his retirement in October 1985. He left a legacy of exemplary character and devotion to family and community. When former Brewery President Robert Schmidt died, my father commented, “President Schmidt liked people. He was the chief executive, but you wouldn’t know it by how he carried himself. He didn’t look down on anybody, and everybody was treated like family.” The Schmidt family was kind, forward-thinking, and set an example of how to treat people. They were generous and supportive to the community and my family. My father was happy working for the Brewery, where he made lifelong friends. Today when I drive by the now deserted buildings of the Brewery, I try hard to recall the sounds and imagine the activities when the Brewery was thriving. I often still imagine seeing my father with his lunch box and Stanley Thermos heading out the door to start his workday at the plant.