Sisters Strong
Michael Rowe

Tune in to Good Morning America on any given weekday, and there’s Robin Roberts—sleek and stylish, with that rich voice and open smile. By appearances alone, you’d never know that just months ago she was battling for her life.

But if you’re among the 4.6 million viewers who make Robin as much a part of their daily routine as that morning cup of joe, then you know very well her struggles. In 2012, the ABC anchor—already a breast cancer survivor—went public about another threatening health condition: myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood and bone-marrow disorder. Carrying her TV audience along through the process of treatment and recovery, Roberts revealed the truly special nature of the marrow donation that saved her. While many African-Americans have trouble identifying potential donors (see “Donation Details,” page 121), Roberts found a match in her own family.

“So often people have a loved one who is ill and there is nothing they can do,” says Sally-Ann Roberts, Robin’s sister and donor. “In my case, there was something I could do.” 

We all can do something, the Roberts sisters believe. Robin and Sally-Ann—a prominent newswoman in her own right as an anchor for WWL-TV in New Orleans—use their media platforms to encourage others to join the national bone-marrow registry, and to educate people about the process. They often point heavenward as they describe the lifesaving miracle of bone-marrow donation, and always express gratitude for each other.

“I thank God every single day that Robin was able to accept the stem cells and that her body responded well,” Sally-Ann says. “I just don’t see it as something that I did. I see this truly as something that God did. I take no credit for the genes I have that match hers. Only God could have made the match…. I have to give all glory, honor and praise to Him.” 

And Robin offers her thanks for the sister who was willing to make the sacrifice. “I am so blessed that this is the DNA that is also a part of me,” she says.

Sister to Sister

When you see Robin and Sally-Ann together—as an audience of thousands did this past July, when the inspiring duo talked about their bond at the 2014 Essence Festival—you can’t help but feel the respect and affection. They’re the model of loving sisterhood and family strength. 

But the Roberts girls—including middle sibling Dorothy Roberts McEwen—will tell you they grew up just like any other sisters. Translation: They bickered and fought like the rest of us. 

“When we were growing up, we didn’t really like Sally-Ann,” Dorothy says of the eldest sister. And the feeling was mutual: “I was a typical teenager,” Sally-Ann admits. “I really didn’t want to hang around them; I didn’t want them to come into my room.”

Loading the player...

Any disinterest in socializing might be explained by birth order. The four Roberts kids—starting with brother Lawrence, Jr., known as Butch—were each four years apart. So as Sally-Ann was approaching her teens, Robin was still a preschooler.

But playmate preferences and age differences mattered little to their parents, Air Force colonel Lawrence and educator Lucimarian, who believed that the family bond was second only to their faith. And the age differences that separated the Roberts children may also be responsible for their relative lack of sibling rivalry.

“It helped us all grow up to have our own identities,” Dorothy says. “Our parents could also see the strengths in each one of us.” Encouraged to pursue their individual gifts, each member of the Roberts clan grew up feeling more confident in themselves than competitive with one another.

Parallel Lives 

But what happens when two siblings are in the same extremely competitive business? Sally-Ann was already a respected television newscaster when Robin was a college student trying to find her path. But instead of pushing Robin to find her own lane, it was Sally-Ann who suggested she combine her love of sports with a broadcasting career.

“She was the reason why I got my first job,” Robin remembers. “She literally picked up the phone and called—because I couldn’t get anybody that would hire me as a sports journalist.”

From that first job in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Robin moved on to Biloxi, Mississippi, then Nashville, then Atlanta—eventually landing a dream job at ESPN. Then ABC called, and she was on a national platform. Meanwhile, Sally-Ann remained at the same Gulf Coast station where she’s been now for 37 years.

“She could have gone to bigger markets,” Robin says of her big sis. But Sally-Ann was determined that her three children weren’t going to have the nomadic lifestyle she experienced growing up as an Air Force kid. So she and her husband put down long roots in Louisiana. 

“We took two different paths in life,” says Sally-Ann. “I don’t regret the path I’ve taken.”

Besides, adds Robin with a laugh, “Sally-Ann will be quick to point out that Good Morning America is not number one in New Orleans. Her morning show is number one.”

You can find the rest of the “Sisters Strong” article in the October issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.