Roberts, Dennis Joseph, 1903-1994

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Mayor of Providence, R.I., and governor of Rhode Island (1951-1959); candidate for U.S. Senate; also called Denny Roberts.

From the description of Papers, 1940-1968. (Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library). WorldCat record id: 70925273

Dennis Joseph Roberts played an integral role in the development of Democratic politics at both the state and national level during the mid-to-late 20th century. Roberts began his political career in 1935 when he was elected to the Rhode Island state senate, and continued to be a public servant for the state, serving as mayor of Providence from 1940 until 1948, governor from 1950 until 1958, and heading a number of state committees, including the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Education, until his death in 1994. Moreover, his expertise and prominence in the Democratic Party led him to become a confidant and political advisor to John F. Kennedy, fostering a loyalty which would inspire Roberts to take on a key role in the creation of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation of Rhode Island.

Born on April 9, 1903 in Providence, Rhode Island, to Dennis J Roberts, Sr. (1866-1934) and Mary A. Hagan (1873-1952), Dennis J Roberts, Jr., was the youngest of three children, having an older brother, John J. Roberts (1893-1914) and an older sister, Mary C. Roberts (1895-1992). Roberts attended La Salle Academy in Providence and graduated in 1923, continuing on to earn his undergraduate degree at Fordham University in 1927, and completed his education in 1930 when he graduated from Boston University Law School.

In 1935, five years after being admitted to the Rhode Island Bar Association, Roberts was elected to the Rhode Island State Senate. He went on to be named the Democratic State Chairman, a position he held from 1938 until 1943. Additionally, Roberts was an alternate in the Democratic National Convention in 1936, and then a primary delegate in 1940, 1948 and 1960. In 1939, he became a member of the Charter Revision Committee which reorganized the city governmental structure.

Roberts was elected Mayor of the City of Providence in 1940 and would hold this office until 1948, taking only a brief absence to serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy (1943-1944). As a Lietenant Commander, Roberts headed a wartime school which trained the military for underwater sabotage and confidential missions in both the Mediterranean and and Pacific theaters. The nature of his office was not publically disclosed unitl 1945.

During his tenure as mayor, Roberts’s more notable accomplishments included the passage of a new city charter, which gave the mayor more appointive and administrative power, and the establishment of a unicameral city-council. As a prominent local Democratic politician, Roberts’s achievements ushered in thirty-four years of the Irish-Democratic Party domination in the City of Providence.

Following his service as mayor, Roberts ran for and was elected Governor of Rhode Island in 1950. He would eventually be reelected three additional times. Because of the many achievements Roberts accomplished as governor, the years of his governorship has often been described as the “Golden Age” of Rhode Island.

As Governor, his administration focused on improving the state’s economy, promoting industry, fostering education, and rectifying grievances within state municipality laws. He created the Department of Administration, a branch of city government that brought finance and several other city departments under one director, thus permitting the governor to spend greater attention on developing policy programs which directly addressed issues faced by Rhode Island citizens.

Furthermore, Roberts advocated for a modern highway system to help develop industry, granted more state aid to schools to implement modern education programs, and reorganized the Board of Education. Additionally, he created the Rhode Island Development Council to monitor the state’s fiscal status, prepared a new version of the General Laws, and addressed the Home Rule Amendment, which gave cities and towns power over local matters.

Roberts also dealt efficiently and effectively with natural disasters, such as hurricanes Carol and Diane in 1954, and pushed the state’s economic issues to the national foreground in order to receive federal support for Rhode Island’s unemployed workers. Roberts’s stellar performance as governor helped establish his image as an astute political leader, and as a result, the Rhode Island state legislature reflected their approval of his policies and aims by expanding the initiative powers of the Governor office.

Robert’s reputation as an able administrator earned him both national and international prominence. In 1955, he was named chairman of the New England Higher Education Convention, which agreed upon the New England Higher Education Compact designed to increased educational opportunities in the six regional New England states.

The same year, for his work to broaden immigration laws and his collaboration with the American Committee on Italian Migration, Roberts was honored by the Republic of Italy when he was named a Grand Officer of Merit of the Republic of Italy. Additional honors came that year when Pope Pius XIII, recognizing his role as a Catholic leader, appointed Roberts to the American Association of Sovereign Military Order of Knights of Malta.

In addition, President Eisenhower designated Roberts to be a representative of the United States at the tenth session of the United Nations General Assembly (1955). Roberts, however, had to decline this honor due to Rhode Island state law which mandated a governor must vacate their office in order to serve in such a capacity. Thus, Roberts sacrificed this prestigious position in order to remain a public servant of his state.

Roberts’s governorship is also associated with the Rhode Island State Convention in 1956. This event led to amendments in voting procedures for absentee and “shut-in” ballots. Therefore, Roberts was active in bringing about needed reforms, which altered the electoral process in the state.

While Roberts greatly added to the prestige and power of the state executive office, he unintentionally weakened his administration during his last term due to the controversy surrounding his reelection in 1956. During this election, his opponent, Christopher Del Sesto, won more popular votes than Roberts. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court discounted several absentee ballots, leading to a victory for Roberts. Unfortunately, many viewed this outcome as underhanded and subsequent dissension in the Democratic Party led to his defeat in the 1958 elections.

Further political disappointment awaited Roberts when he ran against, and lost to, Claiborne Pell in the 1960 U. S. senatorial elections. Nevertheless, Roberts’s political career was far from finished, and he would play a pivotal role in the Kennedy administration.

Dennis J. Roberts first met John F. Kennedy when Roberts was mayor and Kennedy was in the House of Representatives. The two would build a close professional relationship, based on mutual support for one another’s political pursuits. Roberts was instrumental in campaigning for Kennedy as the vice-president nomination in 1956 and as the presidential nominee in the 1960 election. He continued to provide Kennedy with his political expertise and influence within the Democratic Party throughout Kennedy’s years as president, often conducting polls throughout the New England region to gage public opinion in response towards the Kennedy administration’s policies.

After President Kennedy’s assassination, Roberts was appointed by Governor Chafee to be a member of the commission to create the John F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation of Rhode Island, which sought to honor the former president by providing a series of lectures which would promote good will and international peace. Roberts also, along with Nuala Pell co-chaired the Rhode Island Committee for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, whose goal was to help raise over ten million dollars for the construction of the library. Due to the success of the committees’ efforts, Rhode Island contributed significantly to the project. Roberts’s involvement in establishing the memorial library was not only fiscal in nature for he also contributed his memories of the late president through an oral interview, which is available in the media portion of the memorial library.

Roberts continued to be an active member in Rhode Island politics and development. He was named chairman of the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention (1964-69) where he proposed a controversial shift towards a unicameral legislature, and he chaired the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Education from 1969 to 1994.

In addition, Roberts continued to practice law as a primary partner of the Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Pierce, Inc., which he established in 1959. He was an active in this practice until 1994, when while under going an operation for an aneurysm, he passed away.

Dennis J. Roberts devoted his entire life as a dedicated public servant to both the state of Rhode Island and the United States of America. He never married, displaying commitment and fortitude to the offices he held. The state of Rhode Island continues to benefit from the modernizing policies Roberts implemented; especially his progressive reforms in education, industry, and improvements to the structure of state and municipal government.

  • 1903 Apr 9: Born in Providence, Rhode Island to Dennis J. Roberts, Sr. and Mary A. (Hagan) Roberts
  • 1923: Graduated from La Salle Academy
  • 1927: Graduated from Fordham University, B.S.
  • 1930: Graduated from Boston University Law School, LL.B.
  • 1930: Admitted to the Rhode Island Bar Association
  • 1935 - 1938 : Elected Rhode Island State Senator
  • 1938 - 1943 : Named Democratic State Chairman
  • 1939: Admitted as a member of the Charter Revision Commission for the city of Providence
  • 1941 - 1950 : Elected as Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, re-elected in 1942, 1944, 1946, 1948
  • 1943 - 1944 : Served as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S Navy
  • 1949: Received and honorary LL.D from Providence College
  • 1951 - 1958 : Elected Governor of Rhode Island, re-elected in 1952, 1954 and 1956
  • 1953: Named Boston University Alumnus of the Year
  • 1955: Appointed to the US delegation for the tenth session of the United Nations
  • 1955: Received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of Republic of Italy
  • 1955: Appointed to the American Association of Sovereign Military Order of Knights of Malta by Pope Pius XIII
  • 1956: Received the Fordham University Public Service Award
  • 1956 - 1963 : Served in an advisory capacity to John F. Kennedy as both a campaign aid and political advisor
  • 1959: Established the law firm Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Pierce
  • 1960: Candidate for the Democratic Nomination for United States Senator for Rhode Island
  • 1964: Appointed by Governor Chaffee of Rhode Island to be a member of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation
  • 1964 - 1967 : Co-chaired the Rhode Island Committee for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and was a principal force behind fundraising efforts in the state
  • 1964 - 1969 : Chairman of the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention
  • 1966: Participated in the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library oral history project by providing an interview regarding his relationship with the late President Kennedy
  • 1969 - 1994 : Chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Education
  • 1971: Shareholder in the law firm of Roberts, Carroll, Feldstein & Pierce, Incorporated
  • 1994 June 30: Roberts passes away during surgery for a ruptured aneurysm

From the guide to the Dennis J. Roberts papers, Roberts (Dennis J.) papers, 1927-1972, (Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Dennis J. Roberts papers, Roberts (Dennis J.) papers, 1927-1972 Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections
creatorOf Roberts, Dennis Joseph, 1903-1994. Papers, 1940-1968. Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Phillips Memorial Library
referencedIn Altieri, Alice LaFond, 1894-1976. [Edward J. Higgins papers] 1935-1976. Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Phillips Memorial Library
referencedIn Guide to the 1964-1969 Rhode Island Constitutional Convention, 1964-1969 Rhode Island Constitutional Convention, 1964-1969 Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections
referencedIn [Guide to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention of 1964-1969 1964-1969.] Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Phillips Memorial Library
referencedIn Alice LaFond Altieri papers, Altieri (Alice LaFond) papers, 1914-1976 Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections
referencedIn Edward J. Higgins papers, Higgins (Edward J.) papers, 1935-1976 Phillips Memorial Library, Special and Archival Collections
creatorOf Altieri, Alice LaFond, 1894-1976. [Guide to the Alice LaFond Altieri papers]. Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Phillips Memorial Library
referencedIn John E. Fogarty papers, Fogarty, (John E, ) papers, 1941-1967 Phillips Memorial Library
creatorOf Roberts, Dennis Joseph, 1903-1994. [Guide to the Dennis J. Roberts papers ] Providence College, Phillips Memorial Library, Phillips Memorial Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Altieri, Alice LaFond, 1894-1976. person
associatedWith Bush, Prescott Sheldon, 1895-1972. person
associatedWith Butler, John Marshall, 1897-1978. person
associatedWith Democratic Party (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Edward J. Higgins person
associatedWith Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969. person
associatedWith Fogarty, John Edward, 1913-1967. person
associatedWith Forand, Aime´ Joseph, 1895-1972 person
associatedWith General Assembly of Rhode Island corporateBody
associatedWith Goldwater, Barry M. (Barry Morris), 1909-1998. person
associatedWith Green, Theodore Francis, 1867-1966. person
associatedWith Hayden, Carl Trumbull, 1877-1972. person
associatedWith Humphrey, Hubert H. (Hubert Horatio), 1911-1978. person
associatedWith John F. Kennedy Library. corporateBody
associatedWith Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973. person
associatedWith Kefauver, Estes, 1903-1963. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Edward M. (Edward Moore), 1932-2009. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Edward Moore, 1932- person
associatedWith Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963 person
associatedWith Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963. person
associatedWith Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968. person
associatedWith Lehman, Herbert H. (Herbert Henry), 1878-1963. person
associatedWith Long, Russell B. person
associatedWith McClellan, John L. (John Little), 1896-1977. person
associatedWith McGrath, J. Howard (James Howard), 1903-1966. person
associatedWith Muskie, Edmund S., 1914-1996. person
associatedWith Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy, 1929-1994. person
associatedWith Pastore, John O. (John Orlando), 1907-2000. person
associatedWith Pell, Claiborne, 1918- person
associatedWith Pell, Claiborne, 1918-2009. person
associatedWith Rhode Island. General Assembly. House of Representatives. corporateBody
associatedWith Smith, Margaret Chase, 1897-1995. person
associatedWith Stevenson, Adlai E. (Adlai Ewing), 1900-1965. person
associatedWith Truman, Harry S., 1884-1972. person
associatedWith Williams, G. Mennen, 1911-1988. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Rhode Island
Rhode Island
Rhode Island--Providence
Providence (R.I.)
West (U.S.)
Subject
Governor
Constitutional convention
Occupation
Mayors--Rhode Island--Providence
Governors--Rhode Island
Function

Person

Birth 1903-04-08

Death 1994-06-30

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