Bill Roberson was a kindergarten teacher, folk singer, storyteller and devoted family man, but he’ll forever be remembered by his nickname “Billy Button” in the hearts and minds of Tuolumne County children whose lives he enriched over the past 30 years.
Roberson died on Saturday at his home in Sonora surrounded by family and friends after a years long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He would’ve turned 67 on Tuesday.
“He was the kind of guy who never let go of his own sense of childhood,” said B.Z. Smith, a longtime friend of Roberson’s and fellow storyteller who serves as president of the Mother Storytelling Guild.
The National Storytelling Network recognized Roberson for his life’s work on July 27 with the 2019 Oracle Award for Service and Leadership in the Pacific States Region, an honor considered similar to an Academy Award for professional storytellers.
Smith and Roberson’s protege, Dominick Restivo, accepted the award on his behalf.
Roberson was in the process of passing to Restivo the thousands of arcane and quirky folk songs, stories and poems he had memorized throughout his life, many of which have been long since forgotten by much of society.
“One of the saddest things for a lot of us is that there was so much in his brain when he left that we didn’t get a chance to collect,” Smith said.
Smith referred to Roberson as “a walking encyclopedia of children’s folklore,” which he became enthralled with at 10 years old when he and his brother discovered legendary folk singer Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest.”
The show featured a wide variety of traditional American music and is said to have inspired other musical greats, including Bob Dylan.
Roberson said in an interview with The Union Democrat in late May that timeless children’s classics such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” are good for a child’s developing mind because of the repetition and connection to previous generations.
“I think an invisible part of it is that it connects us to our parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, who also sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ ” he said.
Since the late 1980s, Roberson committed himself to fostering the development of children in the county through his educational career and performances as Billy Button at Pinecrest Amphitheater during the summer.
Roberson hosted the “Tall Tales and Silly Songs” summertime program at the amphitheater from 1987 until 2017, during which he brought families together through music and storytelling that resonated with both children and their parents.
One of Roberson’s proudest career accomplishments was his role as one of the founding teachers at Sierra Waldorf School in Jamestown in 1989. He worked as a kindergarten teacher through the early 2000s and later as the school’s enrollment director.
Prior to moving to Tuolumne County in 1986, Roberson studied early childhood development at the University of California, San Francisco, and later worked at daycares and preschools in the city.
Carol Weston Crich, one of the founders who teaches at the school, said Roberson was uniquely gifted to work with children.
“As a teacher, it was so much about who he was as a human being and his presence,” she said. “He had a unique capacity to reach every child and give them just what they needed at that moment.”
As the enrollment director, Roberson was also able to draw parents and other teachers to a profound understanding of human development, Crich said.
Roberson would give lectures over the years on childhood development and parenting for parents at the school and others in the community.
“With children, he had this unique capacity to truly listen and hear their needs,” Crich said. “He offered an amazing depth of wisdom, with generosity, warmth and always humor.”
Colleen McCool, Roberson’s wife, has also been a kindergarten teacher at the school since the early 2000s and was mourning the loss of her husband on Monday.
The couple first met in 1989, but they didn’t start dating until 1998 and married in June 2000. McCool said she was drawn to his sense of humor and “the twinkle in his eye.”
“I could see that he was deeply interested in everyone he met and made everybody around him feel important and loved and special,” she said.
Roberson was also devoted and dedicated to his daughter, Piper Roberson, who was born in 1987. He was preceded in death by her mother, Cinder Brown.
McCool said he taught his daughter, now 32, who lives in Sonora and is a client of WATCH Resources, Inc., hundreds of songs they would sing together.
The last song Piper and Bill Roberson sang together was the 1926 hit “Tonight You Belong to Me” composed by Lee David, just days before his death.
Bill Roberson also helped raised McCool’s two daughters, Kiya Rose McCool-Baldonado, 28, of Guatemala City, and Gabriella McCool-Baldonado, 23, of Santa Cruz.
“He brought all three of our children a great love for reading, music, cooking, poetry…” McCool said. “They were just exposed to so much depth to everything that he brought.”
McCool encouraged those who would like to honor her late husband to sing a song with someone for his birthday on Tuesday, because he believed strongly in the healing power of people singing together.
The family is planning a celebration of life on a date that has yet to be announced, but McCool said it will take place at the Sierra Waldorf School.
In-lieu of flowers, McCool said her husband wanted people to make donations to WATCH Resources Inc., the Sierra Waldorf School, or a fund to support his daughter, Piper Roberson, at the Bank of Stockton at 242 S. Washington St. in Sonora.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com om or (209) 588-4530.