The Chief

A look at the front cover of “The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of John Roberts,” a Basic Books publication written by Joan Biskupic. 

Although Supreme Court of the United States Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. never lived in Johnstown, the city left an indelible mark on his family and, in that way, played an important role in shaping the person he became.

His parents were born and reared in the area.

John “Jack” Roberts Sr. was part of a family with English roots that first came to the region in the mid-1800s. 

Rosemary (Podrasky) Roberts grew up in a Slovak household, living in the Cambria City neighborhood.

Their Johnstown connections are explored, for a few pages, in a new biography “The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of John Roberts,” a Basic Books publication written by Joan Biskupic, a current full-time CNN legal analyst and former

Supreme Court correspondent for The Washington Post and USA Today.

“One of my driving interests was to find out who his people were, where did he come from?” she said during a telephone interview.

Roberts Sr.’s family was “much more assimilated and much more successful rising in the coal and steel industry” than the Podraskys were, according to Biskupic.

He lived on Wonder Street, above the valley in Southmont Borough, and earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Podrasky came from “down in the tighter neighborhoods where there were hotels, taverns, pool halls, their homes were on narrower streets than the Roberts family up on Wonder Street, on high ground,” as Biskupic explained. There was not enough money in the family for Podrasky to attend college, leaving her with a “what might have been” feeling, although, as Biskupic noted “some of her ambitions in life played out then through her young son John because she was always so proud of how he did in school and liked to talk to family members about how he was doing.”

Biskupic was “intrigued” to learn “about the divide between English and Slovakian families and how that had existed back in the mid- and late-1800s and that it had certainly extended into modern times.”

“I liked pursuing the contrast between the backgrounds of the mother and the father,” she added.

The couple met when Podrasky was working for a local telephone company.

“As I write in here, no one in the family was quite sure how Rosemary first crossed paths with Jack,” Biskupic said. “But the nieces in the family said that on their dates her family sometimes asked her to bring along a younger brother, ostensibly as a babysitting chore, but really as a chaperone.”

The Roberts were married in 1952 and moved out of the region.

He worked for Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York, and later in Burns Harbor, Indiana, before becoming general manager first at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and then Sparrows Point, Maryland. 

The father retired from the company in 1985.

“The Bethlehem Steel world that was once such a part of life in Johnstown informed the entire Roberts family existence,” Biskupic said. 

“John Roberts Sr., when he’s a young man in his ’20s, he rises with the company through the ’50s and ’60s. He’s on the management track, the famous ‘Loop’ training program he’s part of. 

“He does very well. But, I make the point that, just as John Roberts Sr. is rising in the industry hierarchy, the overall industry is tanking. 

“We get to the ’70s and ’80s and he ends up retiring early just because of what happened with the steel industry.”

After his years with Bethlehem, Roberts Sr. joined Copperweld Steel Co. and later served as president and chief executive officer of its parent company, CSC Industries Inc., from 1987 until 1990.

He died in 2008 at age 80. A private family service was held in Johnstown where Roberts gave the eulogy, according to Biskupic.

Early in the marriage, John Roberts, Jr. was born in 1955. 

Their son attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, served in the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of the White House Counsel, gained an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and joined the Supreme Court in 2005, being nominated by President George W. Bush.

He married Jane (Sullivan) Roberts in 1996.

“When he meets Jane, the woman who becomes his wife, their very first conversation is about life in Johnstown. … They meet at a group beach house, and they’re swimming, and their very first conversation is about the fact that he’s from Johnstown and that’s where the flood was,” Biskupic said.

In the process of exploring Roberts’ connection to Johnstown, Biskupic conducted research at the David A. Glosser Memorial Library Building in downtown where she also learned about the region’s past.

“I enjoyed doing a lot of research on the ethnicity of people in Johnstown and also the history of the coal mines, steel mills and of course the flood,” Biskupic said.

Reference librarian Joyce Homan assisted in the research and received an acknowledgment in the book.

“I think that she is a very thorough, careful biographer,” Homan said. “So she really was trying to not only find out his story, but get to the overlying conditions of Johnstown at the time his parents were here, get an overall understanding and to relate it back to the present day. It was fascinating to see her process as a writer and the questions she was asking.”

Biskupic has written books about three other Supreme Court justices – “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice,” “American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia” and “Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became its Most Influential Justice.” 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.