MAL ROBERTS: The Greatest Generation Personified
By Maria Sonnenberg, Space Coast Medicine & Active Living // November 15, 2015
MAL’S LIFE RECIPE: ‘DON’T SLOW DOWN’
Mal Roberts believes in keeping his eye on the ball, a philosophy that has served him well in life.
As a champion racquetball and squash player, as a soldier and as a citizen, staying focused has proven a winning formula for the 89-year-old Viera resident.
The Brooklyn native had owned bowling alleys in New York and New England before the Black Monday of 1962 sent businesses spiraling south.
Roberts followed, literally, by leaving cold New York for hot Florida, where he settled in Melbourne in 1967. He managed the Palace Bowling Alley in Melbourne before settling in for an 18-year run with Jim Rathmann Chevrolet.
“My ex-wife’s parents lived here, so we decided to move,” said Roberts.
As a member of the Lone Star Boat Club in New York City, Roberts had picked up the game of squash. To say he played squash is really an understatement, for Roberts, with more than 50 trophies in the sport, was ranked as high as fifth in the nation back in the 1950s.
“Squash is a tough game, because it is really not about power, but rather about finesse,” said Roberts.
“I used to drive the other players crazy, because I would drive them all over the court.”
Unfortunately, squash was nowhere to be found in 1960s Brevard, a problem the star player managed to circumvent.
“When I moved down here, there were no squash courts,” said Roberts.
There were, however, racquetball courts.
“I was going to Cocoa Beach, I saw a crowd playing racquetball, so I bought a $15 racquet and I started to play,” said Roberts.
When life hands you a racquetball, you take it and you play it, says Roberts. In his case, you play it extremely well.
“I won the tournament the first time I played,” he said.
He continued playing racquetball until he almost hit his ninth decade of life, earning honors all along the way. A hip replacement in 2006 ended his racquetball days, but Roberts refuses to take to the sidelines.
“I work out at Pro-Health three times a week and I lift weights at home,” he explained.
He’s at home at Pro-Health, where he taught racquetball before he had to hang up his racquet for good.
During his playing days, Roberts amassed more than 250 medals, winning the National Doubles Champ in the Over 65 Division in 1991 and 1992 and again in 1994 and 1996.
Twice he snagged the National Grand Masters Double Champ.
From 1991 to 1999, he won all of the Florida Singles and Doubles Championships in his age bracket. During that same stretch of years, he was also the Southeast Regional Singles and Doubles Champ.
Add 13 National Championships and four World Championships to the total and you can imagine that Roberts is not short on trophies.
Former employer Rathmann Chevrolet sponsored him to play in Europe, where Roberts earned the World Racquetball Doubles Championship.
Life, of course, isn’t all fun and games, and Roberts’ life has included plenty of hardship.
As a rifleman during World War II, he spent months in miserable foxholes that regaled him with trench foot, jaundice, hearing problems and hepatitis, and landed him in a hospital for more than a year.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.
He served with the 399th Infantry Division in the front lines of France.
Unfortunately, his distinguished Army records burned during a fire at a St. Louis records depot, and it wasn’t until 2003 – 59 years after he was medically discharged from the Army – that the government finally officially recognized him for his outstanding service.
During a ceremony at Indian River Colony Club, Roberts was awarded the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World war II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Honorable Service Lapel Button and the Marksman Badge.
That’s a lot of medals in one day, even for a guy used to winning lots of them.
MAL’S LIFE RECIPE: ‘DON’T SLOW DOWN’
Four years ago, Roberts received another very nice surprise: he had been selected to receive the Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur, the Legion of Honor Medal, France’s highest decoration, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1820 and given for military service or for cultural, academic or humanitarian endeavors.
Among his fellow honorees are Alexander Graham Bell, Julia Child, Charlie Chaplin, Robert De Niro and Alan Greenspan.
An additional kudos is his induction into the Honorable Order of St. Maurice, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the United States Army.
In the trove of awards is also a key, a key to the City of Melbourne, presented to Roberts along with the Man of the Year award in 1997.
Roberts’ recipe for health and long life is not rocket science. In addition to regular exercise, he watches his diet, does not smoke and refuses to take it easy.
“Don’t slow down, just keep going,” he said.