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).