Jack finds happiness amidst hilly dangers


Ever wondered who the small, wiry, elderly fellow who regularly strides round Queenstown is? Philip Chandler catches up with one of town’s most active older citizens, former American Jack Roberts 

Just about every day, a sprightly elderly man, keeping to himself, walks briskly through Queenstown’s CBD.

Known mostly by only a handful of his Queenstown Hill neighbours, Jack Roberts is one of the resort’s liveliest nonagenarians despite contracting polio about 50 years ago and permanently living with Asperger syndrome.

Recently turned 91, Roberts spent about the first half of his life in the United States.

Born an only child in Texas, the budding academic joined the naval officer training programme during World War II, aged 17.

Suspended after six weeks due to slightly defective eyesight, he says he was sent to boot camp in San Diego.

“My education in life began then and I emptied hospital bedpans and swabbed the decks of barracks and hospitals.”

Towards the end of the war, he successfully applied to study Japanese at a naval language school.

He then returned to the University of Texas, gaining degrees in international trade and Spanish.

After then receiving a masters degree in Spanish, he married Peggy Orme in 1949, then moved to Connecticut, where he’d been accepted for study at the Yale Graduate School.

The couple had five children, but after securing language and linguistics teaching posts around the US, Roberts says he became “very suspicious of the way northern hemisphere civilisation was going and decided that in the long run it was time to get out”.

After moving to Costa Rica for nine months, the couple and their three youngest children moved to Dunedin in 1970.

The attraction was Otago University’s reputation for anthropology, which Peggy Roberts specialised in.

A few years later, however, the couple separated, then divorced, and Peggy moved back to the US.

Back in 1965, Jack contracted a mild case of polio, due to an aversion to a vaccine.

“In order to be able to sleep better, because I was very uncomfortable, I started running.”

During 27 years living in Dunedin, Jack says he ran 15 marathons and also some half-marathons - “but I didn’t count them”.

Living off investments and a bequest, he didn’t need to work in Dunedin.

“I taught Spanish for two years at the polytech, but the students weren’t really very interested.”

He did, however, edit two volumes on the genealogy of his and Peggy’s families, including a reference to his famous forebear, frontiersman Daniel Boone.

Suffering from Asperger syndrome isn’t a huge handbrake. He doesn’t mind getting up in front of a class and explaining all sorts of strange things, like the subjunctive in Spanish, he explains, adding: “I’m just not terribly sociable.”

One of his four daughters, Lizzie, studied law in Dunedin, then shifted to Queenstown to join a law firm in the 1980s - she’s nowadays the Arrowtown librarian.

Jack was lunching with her at Arrowtown’s Millbrook Resort in 1997, when she suggested he shift to the area. As a result, he bought his current house on Queenstown Hill.

Till he fell over running and broke his arm about 18 months ago, Jack says he used to run downtown and back up again - he’s now down to a fast stroll.

Aside from his exercise, Jack puts his longevity down to his diet - lettuce, tomato, half a pepper and half an avocado, every day - and various interests in life.

He spurns a TV but spends a lot of time on his computer.

Asked about the US election, he replies: “Oh God, I’m so glad I’m far away - I think it’s hopeless.”

Though he doesn’t share Democratic contender Bernie Sanders’ politics, “he’s an honest man and that’s more than you say about either of the others”.

Despite living on a steep hillside in a home full of stairs, Jack says he’s not planning to move.

“I’m willing to die here - this can be my retirement home.”

Asked whether he’ll reach three figures, he says: “Well, I might - my grandmother, who was born in 1853, lived to 97.”