Sen. Pat Roberts reflects on time with K-State after announcing retirement

Senator Pat Roberts (left) and then-Kansas lieutenant governor Jeff Colyer watch Jeh Johnson, then-U.S. secretary of homeland security, deliver the 167th K-State Landon Lecture on May 27, 2015. (Archive Photo by Parker Robb | Collegian Media Group)

On Jan. 4 of this year, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts announced that he will not run for reelection in 2020 after a 50-year-long political career working at both the state and national level.

As a 1958 alumnus, Roberts worked with Kansas State University in a variety of ways during his years in public service, calling his time at K-State a “wonderful experience” in a personal interview.

“I credit K-State with an awful lot,” Roberts said. “When I went into public service, I was able to work with the administration and a lot of other people to achieve some great things, but I want to give K-State all the credit for making me feel comfortable as a student and having instructors that would press you and make you aware that you could do more than you think you could do.”

Former K-State president Jon Wefald said Roberts was always there whenever he asked the senator for help.

“Of all the politicians in the state of Kansas, Pat Roberts is the MVP, most valuable player, of all the governors, senators and congressmen,” Wefald said. “In my 23 years, from 1986 to 2009, Senator Pat Roberts did more for K-State than any politician going back to the Civil War. That’s because he wanted to help.”

Roberts graduated from K-State in 1958 with a degree in journalism, and he said it was a positive experience.

“K-State at that particular time — and I think still today — it’s a family,” Roberts said. “And at that particular time, we didn’t have [enrollment] in the 20,000s, but everybody knew one another. It was a wonderful atmosphere, and K-State and the Marine Corps both taught me I could do more than I thought I could.”

Roberts was on the swim team during his sophomore year at K-State after a successful freshman year on the team, and even though he had less time to swim than before, he said he would still practice in the pool located in the basement of Nichols Hall at the time. Although he was a not regular on the team his sophomore year, Roberts said he still ended up lettering by happenstance.

“Against Nebraska, one on our team had the flu and the coach called me on a Saturday morning and said, ‘Come down and swim on the 100 [yard], that’s all you have to do, we just need somebody there,” Roberts said.

“We had five people lined up, two from K-State and three from Nebraska,” Roberts continued. “My companion had the flu and he said, ‘I can’t swim,’ so that’s down to four. One Nebraska swimmer, he double-started, so he’s out. Now we’re down to three, then the last two Nebraska swimmers, one didn’t hit the turn right, and was disqualified. That’s down to one — and me. He beat me, but my line was, ‘Well, I took second in the meet against Nebraska.’ And because of that, I think I got a letter. I don’t know what on earth I’ve done with it.”

As a journalism major, Roberts worked for the Collegian during his time as an undergraduate, and he said his veins run with “printer’s ink.”

“They would have me cover political events,” Roberts said. “I don’t know why exactly — everybody had a beat. I became wire editor. It was a very good experience. I came from a newspaper background. My great-grandfathers both were editors back in the era of bleeding Kansas.”

After working at various newspapers following his graduation, Roberts entered public service and worked his way up the political ladder — from a congressman’s administrative assistant to the U.S. House of Representatives and finally to the U.S. Senate — always representing the state of Kansas.

Ron Trewyn, the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility liaison for K-State, said a significant part of Roberts’ impact on K-State is his involvement with the Homeland Defense Food Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness Program. The NBAF will be a research facility run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture after it is constructed in Manhattan in 2022.

“Senator Roberts was really responsible for this,” Trewyn said. “He was about to take over chairing the Emerging Threats Subcommittee in the U.S. Senate, and in February [1999], we made our annual trip back there to visit with the delegation members, and that year, he basically felt the proposals we were bringing back for him to support were rather small. He said he wanted to see something big.”

The project led to the building of the Biosecurity Research Institute in Pat Roberts Hall on campus. Roberts secured a large portion of federal funding for the building.

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Roberts traveled to Russia to visit a “secret city” about 60 miles from Moscow.

“When the Soviet Union broke up, there were just an awful lot of things lying around like nuclear subs,” Roberts said. “I went up there [to] a facility there where they had already developed all sorts of pathogens designed to attack a nation’s food supply. If you stop and think about it, if a country had that capability and they really used it, then all of a sudden, our country would be in terrible shape to feed ourselves.”

Later on, the Department of Homeland Security put out a message that it was looking for a location to build what became the NBAF. During the duo’s usual tradition of reading the newspaper and having coffee in the university presidential residence after a ball game, Wefald and Roberts decided to push for the facility to be at K-State.

“Jon looks at me in his usual optimistic way and says, ‘Well, we could do that at K-State,’” Roberts said.

After years of hard work, the construction of the NBAF would begin on the north end of campus close to Pat Roberts Hall, which was named by Wefald as a way of thanking the senator for all he had done for the university.

Looking back on his time as a student, Roberts said he remembers the impact of the K-State Family and encouraged students today to take advantage of it.

“During that whole experience, you will find that the K-State family is much larger and bigger, and you run into K-Staters all around the world,” Roberts said. “This really means a lot because your friendships with people will last that amount of time, and we’re talking about 1958 — that’s a lot of years.

“The K-State family is just incredible,” Roberts continued. “If you can know that and appreciate that and really keep in touch, it will serve you for a lifetime.”

I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at