Roessel helped give a voice to Navajos
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 21, 2006

Betty Reid

ROUND ROCK - When Robert Roessel arrived in Navajo country in the 1950s, he quicklyrealized that something was missing: a voice.

So, the man whom locals called Bá'ólta'í, or teacher, made it his mission to be the voice that would represent the Navajos' need for a better education.

And it was a fiery voice that penetrated the nearby Chuska Mountains with the red bands, sprinted east across Indian country, crossed the Mississippi River and reached the white marble halls of the nation's Capitol. The federal government reacted to Roessel's work by reforming Navajo education in the late 1960s.

That legacy is being remembered as family, friends and co-workers mourn Roessel, who died on Feb. 16 of lung cancer. He was 79.

Born in Webster Groves, Mo., Roessel lived among the nation's largest tribe, the Diné, in a tiny remote community of Tse ni Kani,or Round Rock.

Ferlin Clark, president of Diné Community College, described Roessel as a tireless intellect and visionary who advocated the presence of Navajo culture and language in school curriculum.

When Roessel became Diné Community College's first president, he did not bring national political experts or doctorates to the young institution.
Instead, he invited Navajo politicians and healers to lecture.

When the educator spoke, people listened, Clark told a 400-member audience at a memorial.

"A commanding voice, echoing across Navajo land, heard by you and many others, a voice honored by the sacred mountains, acknowledged by the spirits of sacredness, Diyin Diné, the holy people," Clark said. "A powerful hand that wrote plans for education, that shook hands of medicine people, tribal leaders, congressmen, presidents, teachers and students."

Roessel, who maintained a four-decade partnership with Arizona State University-College of Education, set the stage for the first Native community college at Tsaile/Wheatfields on the Navajo Reservation. He founded the Center for Indian Education at ASU, where he received his doctorate in education in the early 1960s and, four-decades later, the university's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Roessel's strong advocacy to have the Navajos run their own schools meant that more of them joined governing school boards in the 1960s. It grew into an even louder and stronger pulpit for local schools to stop the federal government from sending thousands of Navajo kids far away from home to get educated.

"Bob had a skill. He could move a politician, he could dissolve bureaucracy and just by his nature and voice, his ideas, he could move mountains with it," said Peterson Zah, adviser to ASU President Michael Crow. "You've got to have someone like that to do the things Bob did."

Life for the young educator started in Round Rock when he married a young Navajo woman named Ruth Wheeler in 1955. Interracial marriages were rare, but Roessel saw to it that he fit in, and the Diné came to address him as "Nahaa daaní" or "our in-law." That came with duties of giving back to the bride's family. Roessel embraced the Navajo Nation.

Roessel had a passion for poetry and carried index cards in his shirt pocket. He scribbled notes to himself that he later wrote into speeches, communication with members of Congress or a letter to the editor at The Navajo Times.

When President Kennedy sent his War on Poverty commission to Arizona in 1965, it heard plenty about Roessel's school, which had a Navajo curriculum.
That led to the tribe's first Navajo Community College to open in 1969, which later changed its name.

Since Diné College opened, 34 colleges followed, including Haskell Indian Nations University.

When he should have retired, Roessel joined Zah's first Navajo chairman's staff in the early 1980s. He raised $9 million for the construction of the Navajo Education Center in Window Rock and watched more high schools open on the reservation.

Roessel never forgot Round Rock. He coached the Rabbits baseball team, which later was renamed the Braves. Stella Goldtooth, now 63, was the team's teenage slugger. Her/ daughter Sheila, 28, met Roessel in 1998 as a Northern Arizona University graduate.

The younger Goldtooth understood this was the non-Indian in-law who made good on his responsibility.

"To me, Bob wasn't just some white guy who came to Round Rock. To me, he was Navajo," Goldtooth said. "The way he ate Navajo food, the way he participated in Navajo curing rituals, the way he inspired young people here to be proud of who they are. Bob was Navajo."

Reach the reporter at or call (602) 444-8049.