R. Ross Roby – WWII Conscientious Objector #52Ancestors : Week 1

My paternal grandfather, Rochester Ross Roby (1914–2002), was always a man of strong principles. He was raised Episcopalian in Rochester, Monroe County, New York, in an upper middle-class family. After graduating from an elite private school and Yale University, Ross (he hated the name Rochester), set out to make something of his life. He spoke out against the war in Europe and declared himself a pacifist and conscientious objector before the U.S. entered WWII.[1] Little did my grandfather know that his experiences as a conscientious objector during the war would lead him into his life’s work.

R. Ross Roby – Yale University Graduation Photo, 1937

During the war, the United States gave conscientious objectors who were drafted an alternative option for service instead of putting them under the military’s direction. Nearly 12,000 men and women chose Civilian Public Service (CPS). Under this program, these conscientious objectors, including my grandfather, were assigned to a camp and a work project of national importance. Sometime in 1943, my grandfather was sent to Philadelphia and the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. The Civilian Public Service would become known for its groundbreaking work in the field of mental health. Ross was assigned to be an orderly in a men’s ward of the psychiatric hospital.[2]

While working as an orderly in what must have been unspeakable conditions for both himself and the patients, Ross decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Since he worked long days at the hospital, he had to take evening courses. Consequently, he had to endure a long commute on public transportation from one end of Philadelphia to the other (Philadelphia State Hospital was at the far northeastern corner of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania is in West Philadelphia). There was something about seeing the horrors at the state hospital that made Ross want to help people with mental illnesses, beyond what he could do as an orderly.

It was in one of Ross’s night courses when fate intervened. Since he worked all day and traveled over an hour to get to class, he was exhausted by the time class started. Sometimes he fell asleep in class. A fellow student, Juliet Carter Dulany, offered to share her notes to help him pass the class. Less than a year later, on 22 June 1946, they were married. My grandparents, Ross and Juliet, were married for over 55 years and had four children, including my father.

Civilian Public Service workers were required to stay in the program as long as two years after WWII ended in 1945. My grandfather was one of the workers at Philadelphia State Hospital who went on strike to protest the length of their required service. Eventually, the CPS workers won, and in 1947 their service to the country ended.[3]

My grandfather finished medical school and settled down with his new family in Philadelphia. Because of his experiences as a conscientious objector at Philadelphia State Hospital, Ross wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the field of mental health. He would go on to a distinguished career as a child psychiatrist.

Ross joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) soon after the war. He remained very active with his local meeting in Germantown. He was involved with many organizations to support the pacifist and peace movement. His passion for the movement remained high until his death in 2002.

Even though my grandfather was not a typical veteran, he very much served his country during WWII. While it is always important to remember and honor our military veterans, do not forget the men and women behind the scenes. Conscientious objectors do not believe in war, but they still love their country. Ross started his service during the war years and continued to serve throughout the rest of his life. That’s how I remember him.

It was my grandfather who spurred my interest in history and genealogy. Ross spent decades researching his and my grandmother’s family histories. He became a member of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) in 1968. I joined the Board of Directors of that same organization in March 2019. I sometimes think about my grandfather as I’m driving in to the GSP office. A few blocks before I get there, I pass the spot along Roosevelt Blvd. where the Philadelphia State Hospital used to stand.


[1] “Pacifist Asks Peace Moves,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), 03 Nov 1941, p. 14, col. 3; image copy, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/136192437/ : accessed 31 December 2020), Newspapers.com Publishers Extra.

[2] Mennonite Central Committee, “CPS Worker 008626 – Roby, Rochester Ross,” Civilian Public Service (http://civilianpublicservice.org/workers/8626 : accessed 31 December 2020), entry for Rochester Ross Roby.

[3] Mennonite Central Committee, Civilian Public Service (http://civilianpublicservice.org/ : accessed 31 December 2020).

13 thoughts on “R. Ross Roby – WWII Conscientious Objector #52Ancestors : Week 1”

  1. This is an accurate and well-written summary of my father’s life, a man for whom I had and have enormous admiration and respect. Thank you for preparing this account.

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  2. Hi Joe,
    Wonderful article. Thanks so much. Hope to see you again at a genealogical event. Last year was a complete wash.

    Regina E. Kelly

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    1. Thank you, Regina. You’re welcome. I still have my fingers crossed for in-person events in 2021, but getting the pandemic under control is the top priority. I’ve become pretty adept at Zoom over the past year.

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  3. Thank you for this history of and tribute to your grandfather. My father was a conscientious objector, also, as was his uncle. They both served as Army medics. Wish I had asked them more about their experiences.

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      1. Yes. Quite a depiction of CO issues and the horrors of war, along with his courage. My dad was a Seventh-Day Adventist like Doss.

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      1. Fascinating! Love the comments. Ross Roby’s name has a line through it. Does it mean they danced together? What does “gevalt” mean? The German word “gewalt” means power or strength.

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      2. After looking at the image of the dance card again and searching online for “gevalt,” I think I came up with a very probable answer. I think Betsey was making remarks next to the names so she would remember who NOT to dance with again. My grandfather, R. Ross Roby, was apparently at the top of that list.
        Here is what I found on https://www.proz.com/kudoz/hebrew-to-english/other/2820-gevault.html posted by “musici” on 21 May 2000:
        “Hebrew term or phrase: gevault
        oy gevault
        English translation: Oh no!
        Explanation:
        This term is actually Yiddish, not Hebrew, and is an exclamation one makes when in distress (or sometimes when frustrated). It is usually spelled GEVALT, not GEVAUlT, by the way.
        It usually means something along the lines of “Oh no!”, and is used as such when something bad happens (for example, if you have been having a bad day already, and your car breaks down, you might put your head against the steering wheel and say “Oy, gevalt.”).
        It can also be used to express disgust or frustration, as in “throwing up one’s hands” (for example, after an hour of going around in circles with an argument, you might give up on arguing any further and storm out of the room throwing an “Oy, gevalt” over your shoulder — sort of a “this situation is hopeless; I give up.”).”

        I guess my grandfather wasn’t the best dancer, at least at that point in his life. He would later be part a Scottish dancing group with his wife at their retirement community. There may be another blog post in there somewhere…

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      3. I found it randomly online, but I really don’t think Betsey was the one who made the “gevalt” comment! Betsey had written her dance partners’ names in ink.

        There’s obviously no way to know for sure, but I think Bill wrote his name in pencil at the bottom (you can tell it’s a different hand), and then wrote in snide comments about all of Betsey’s other potential suitors. Regardless, reading your beautiful write-up about your granddad makes me think it worked out really well for him!

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