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George B. Roberts, former U.S. ambassador to Guyana and career foreign service officer, dies at 91

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Mr. Roberts and his wife, Zara, married in 1952. Read more

George B. Roberts, 91, of Philadelphia, the U.S. ambassador to Guyana from 1979 to 1981 and a career foreign service officer who worked in Laos, Thailand, Tanzania, Jamaica, and elsewhere, died Sunday, Oct. 3, of Alzheimer’s disease at Cathedral Village retirement community.

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States to the Cooperative Republic of Guyana on Oct. 12, 1979, Mr. Roberts was tasked with representing the country less than a year after the tragic Jonestown massacre in remote Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978.

That title gave him the highest rank for a diplomat and full authority to represent the U.S. government. Over a 30-year career that began in 1957, Mr. Roberts also served abroad in other countries as chief of mission, deputy chief of mission, and political officer.

Later, he told his family stories of surviving attacks at the U.S. Embassy in Laos in the 1960s and traveling dangerous and muddy roads from Laos to Thailand.

In a short 2002 autobiography for a Yale University class reunion publication, Mr. Roberts wrote that the foreign service “was a good outfit. And we won the cold war — so there!”

In between foreign assignments, he was special assistant to the U.S. deputy secretary of state and director of Thai-Burma affairs at the State Department. He spoke Thai and Swahili and trained at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va.

He met Zara Bentley at a dance in Philadelphia. They married in 1952 and had sons George Brooke III and Michael and daughter Jocelyn. His wife died in 2020.

“If you ask our kids, they’ll say they’re from Washington,” he wrote in 2002. “But they’re really from all over the world.”

Born May 25, 1930, in Philadelphia, Mr. Roberts graduated from St. George’s School in Rhode Island, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, and served in the Navy from 1953-57.

His Philadelphia roots date to 1683, and his great-grandfather was George Brooke Roberts, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1880-96. His parents were Philadelphia architect and author George Brooke Roberts and author Mary Hoppin Howland Roberts.

Friends and family called him humble, content, sophisticated, sweet, and smart. “He was gentle and peaceful,” his daughter said. “He was a gentleman to the core.”

After their travels, Mr. Roberts and his wife retired to Mount Airy in 1986, and he taught political science at St. Joseph’s University for seven years. “This served to keep me off the streets,” he wrote.

He was senior rector’s warden at Grace Epiphany Episcopal Church and active in Democratic precinct politics. He liked to dance with his wife, eat bananas for dessert, restore and maintain classic English cars, and make his family feel special.

“With his quiet and gentlemanly demeanor, he showed me what it looked like to respect yourself and others,” his granddaughter Catherine wrote on Facebook.

Mr. Roberts was such a baseball fan that he would duck out of church early and be late to big events so he could watch the Phillies play. After work, he liked to play catch in the backyard.

“It was wonderful,” said his son Michael. “He was that kind of dad.”

Mr. Roberts ended his 2002 autobiography with this: “Zara and I still love each other, our children are still gainfully employed, and we have three granddaughters. To ask for more would be piggy.”

Wrote a friend in a tribute, “I’m so thankful our paths crossed.”

In addition to his children, Mr. Roberts is survived by five grandchildren, a sister, and other relatives.

A service is to be held later.

Donations in his name may be made to Philabundance, 3616 S. Galloway St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19148.