As Edgar Roberts talks about his father, his voice begins to quiver.
“I apologize if I,” his voice trails off. He takes a long pause to gather himself. “All I ever wanted to do was be just like my dad.”
A World War II veteran, Thomas Roberts made an indelible impression on his only son. “I looked up to him and admired him so much,” said Roberts, who spent his career in law enforcement then investigations before retiring in 2016.
Last year he designated the Gary Sinise Foundation in his living trust as the recipient of his family’s home in Oakland. Roberts made the pledged estate gift to the foundation’s Legacy Society.
A life steeped in public service, a purpose in life about making a difference, Roberts modeled after his father and mother, Patricia, who volunteered with the Red Cross in San Francisco during the war.
In 1942, after a year in college and participating in the school’s ROTC unit, Thomas enlisted in the Marine Corps. He shipped out to the South Pacific a year later with the Third Marine Division, 9th Marines, 3rd Joint Assault Signal Co (3rd JASCO). A forward observer, he directed gunfire from Naval ships anchored offshore, targeting Japanese artillery and infantry units.
“He liked to tell the story that the Marine Corps taught him a lot of things, but ducking wasn’t one of them,” Roberts said. Thomas was wounded in Guam and during combat operations at Iwo Jima in February 1945. He received two Purple Hearts.
“If there was a decoration for being unlucky, he’d have gotten that too.”
Thomas was discharged from the Marine Corps on his twenty-fourth birthday in December 1945. Less than a year later, he married Patricia Edgerton, his high school sweetheart, and joined his father in the food brokerage business in the Bay Area.
During his lifetime, Thomas rarely talked about the war and the medals he received.
When Patricia died in 1991, Roberts discovered a shoebox on the top shelf in her closet. Bundles of letters wrapped in ribbon were inside — his parent’s correspondence during the war.
“I had a chance to read from beginning to end what he was writing home to her,” he explained, “and, without fail, the common thread was ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon.’”
“It was always upbeat; everything was geared towards making her and his mom and dad as comfortable as possible because everybody during that period in time was worried sick about a loved one that was going in harm's way.”
Thomas died in 1992, eight months after Patricia.
While thumbing through a local newspaper last year, Roberts came across an obituary referencing the Gary Sinise Foundation. Curious about the charity, he went online and began scrolling through its website. The foundation’s work with first responders and the military appealed to him. But its financials impressed him.
“The fact that they don’t do any advertising, the overhead is incredibly low, I think for a major charity, and the fact that people, generally, reach out to the foundation as opposed to vice versa really impressed me.”
He said including the foundation in his living trust was easy. “The [Gary] Sinise Foundation is very exceptional in terms of the things they support.”
In 2006, the Oak Ridge Boys, the legendary, Knoxville-based country gospel quartet, released “Front Row Seats.” The album features the song “Did I Make A Difference.”
Introspective questions abound in the chorus: “Did I make a difference in somebody's life?” and “When my race is run, when my song is sung / Will I have to wonder, did I make a difference?” Said Roberts, “It speaks to the way my father raised his family and behaved as a husband.”
Yet the song also reminds him of his father’s legacy — the reason why the planned estate gift to the foundation, the Roberts’ family home — takes on added significance.
“The more I think about the [Gary] Sinise Foundation, and what they do and what they’re going to continue to do,” he said, “just pleases me to no end.”