PD PRofiles: Roberta McKaig By matt spence

Roberta McKaig started teaching at Providence Day in 1975. To put that into perspective, that was the same year that the Vietnam War ended, the Watergate scandal rocked Washington DC, Bruce Springsteen released his album Born to Run, and Bill Gates launched Microsoft from an Albuquerque garage. Although she is not the longest-serving member of the faculty (that distinction belongs to Anita McLeod), she is second on the list. Now in her 46th year, Roberta McKaig has remained a fixture in the Latin department for multiple generations of PD students.

McKaig was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, to parents who were both involved in education. Her mother was a teacher of first-graders, and her father taught math and was a school principal for several years. McKaig is one of four children, and the three youngest of whom were born within 27 months of each other. She and her brother and sisters lived what she called “the idyllic 1950s life” in which they could walk to school every day.

McKaig recalls that she was first exposed to Latin in the eighth grade by a prim and proper woman named Mrs. Eloise Hart, and she was hooked immediately. McKaig loved the precision of the language, and she was captivated by the stories of Roman heroes. Her passion for the language led her to apply to Duke University because of its highly-regarded Classics program. After earning her degree, McKaig returned to Columbus to teach in the public school system there. Following her marriage, she taught in Charleston, South Carolina, and then in Mayport, Florida, while her husband served in the US Navy.

After her husband finished law school at Vanderbilt, they moved to Charlotte and she took a few years off from teaching to be with her young children, Karen, class of 1989, and Heather, class of 1990, before joining the PD faculty in 1975.

This photo of Roberta McKaig is from the 1976 Providence Day Yearbook.

The school at that time was considerably smaller than it is today. There were only 600 students, and the physical campus consisted of the Williams Building, Providence Hall, Overcash Hall, the Ridenhour Gymnasium (without the minigym), and the original Humanities House. The only playing field was where the McMahon Fine Arts Building now sits, and the entire school library was contained in the space that is now the Lower School Office.

This 1978 aerial photo of the school shows the front field, the Williams Building, Providence Hall, Overcash Hall (then called the Two-Story Building), the Ridenhour Gymnasium, and the Humanities House.
The entire school library was contained in the space that is now the Lower School Office.
When McKaig started her career, the entire school library fit into what is now the Lower School Office. This small space was also one of the classrooms she taught in.

McKaig recalls that the dress code was far more strict. It was commonplace for girls to wear dresses, pantyhose, and dress flats or low heels, and boys generally wore khakis with belts and dress shirts. Things loosened up a bit when headmaster Doug Eveleth made the decision to permit students to wear jeans on Mondays only.

For the first several years of her career at PD, McKaig says that teachers had a wide range of responsibilities in addition to their teaching duties. “Betty Jo Steele was a full-time math teacher, head of the Math Department, served as admissions director, composed all of the seniors’ college letters, directed student activities, and handled attendance for the entire school.” McKaig herself has worn many hats. At different times during her career, she has taught journalism, drama, Yearbook, and SAT prep, and this was on top of teaching all of the Latin classes that the school offered. She was also the faculty leader of the Keyettes, theater director, and Middle School cheerleading coach.

Roberta McKaig in her role as the Yearbook adviser in the 1980s.

Each job came with its own set of challenges. As a Latin teacher, she spent years without her own classroom and had to carry her materials from place to place. As the theater teacher, she conducted rehearsals in the drama classroom because the only stage was in the Ridenhour gym, and it was constantly in use. Often, the first time the actors would use the stage with an open curtain was on opening night.

So, while she was definitely busy, McKaig says that the pace of life back then didn’t seem as intense as it does today, but she thinks this could be because everyone was equally involved. McKaig says that she actually misses teaching the other courses because they gave her an opportunity to know more of the students than she does now.

The World Language department in the 1980s.

As the school has grown, some of its traditions have changed. McKaig remembers fondly how Homecoming was more of an all-school affair. Each grade in the Upper School had to come up with its own chant and dance, and the number of points awarded to a class was closely tied to the percentage of students who participated. One year, the entire senior class went onto the gym floor to perform a dance set to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that included moonwalking and a fog created with dry ice. Each class would also create “spirit links,” which were chains of rings made from red, white, and blue construction paper. During Homecoming Week, students would bring garbage bags filled with paper chains and would hang them in the hallways of the school – there were often so many spirit links draped along the ceilings that people would have to duck under them to get to class.

Roberta McKaig teaches class in the 1980s.

McKaig also notes that there seemed to be more time in the day to appreciate the talents of individual students. Several times per year, each class would be shortened by five minutes so that the mid-morning break could be made an hour-long, and during these times, students would display their talents. She vividly remembers stunning performances such as a male soccer player sitting on a stool in the middle of the gym singing a beautiful rendition of “Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady,” a basketball player singing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and a young woman signing “Even Now” by Barry Manilow. McKaig says, “It was before we had facilities [like we do now], but we had heart.”

McKaig has always been amazed by the talent of the students at PD. “I’m always blown away by how these young people can be athletes and students at our level and still have the time to develop these talents – it’s just mind-boggling.” And, she says that the students today are in many ways even more accomplished than they were in the past, but the difference is that there is less time in the day for the entire school to appreciate one another. She says that although the Performing Arts Department puts on incredible performances, these usually happen in the evening. Therefore, the people in the audience are mostly parents, siblings, and a few friends and teachers, so a good portion of the student body has fewer opportunities to see how talented their peers are.

Roberta McKaig works with Corey Efird in 1989.

Roberta McKaig is proud of the school for its talented students and impressive academic and extracurricular programs, and she is especially proud of the continued growth of the Latin program that she has led for so many years. She loves to see PD graduates sending their own children to the school, and she thinks that the alumni who have returned to teach here have had an enormous influence on the school’s culture.

When asked what she would hope to see if she were to come back to PD for its 75th anniversary, McKaig paused and said, “a smaller student body,” but then she quickly added, “or, a bigger theater because it’s important that all of the students have a place where they can gather together.”

When McKaig was asked how she has made it for so many years, she replied, “I love the kids, I love the language, and I love my colleagues, so it’s pretty easy to stay in the classroom as long as they’ll let me.” After 46 years, her passion for Providence Day hasn’t dimmed a bit. This year, she has taught remotely because of the pandemic, but she will soon receive her second COVID vaccine shot, and she plans to be back on campus as soon as the fourteen-day waiting period is over. That day will coincide with her 76th birthday, and she says that teaching in person again will be the best birthday present she could ask for.

Roberta McKaig in her home in 2020.

The photos in this story are courtesy of Bobbie Hinson and the PDArchives.

Created By
Matt Spence