The name Barbara Roper is synonymous with volunteerism and philanthropy in West Orange County, and that work started when she was a newlywed making her home in Winter Garden in 1950. This important contribution to her community would continue throughout her life.
Barbara Cruciger Roper, of Windermere, died March 7, 2022, in her home on Lake Butler, where she had lived for nearly 72 years. she was 93.
Barbara Roper was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on New Year’s Eve 1928. She attended the Ellis School and graduated from Penn State as one of the first women with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics, her family said. It was in college that she met her future husband, Bert Roper, on a blind date. The two married in 1950 and moved to Winter Garden.
Barbara described herself as a Yankee who had married the most eligible bachelor in town. She said doing so did not make her a popular resident during her first years in Winter Garden.
During their 62-year marriage, the couple was a permanent fixture in the volunteer and philanthropic realm.
It was a challenge for Barbara to learn about Central Florida and a life very different from the cultured big city in which she had grown up. Barbara learned to handle guns, hunting for squirrels that ate her fruit, snakes hiding under the dock and other Florida critters, including an armadillo she cooked into a stew and served to the family, only later telling the children what they’d eaten was not chicken.
Barbara Roper taught first grade at the original Tildenville School for several years before she and Bert started their family.
Her service to the community began as a founding member of the West Orange Junior Service League, and she served as president in 1957.
She never returned to teaching; however, she constantly used those skills to teach adults how to read. She helped start the Laubach Literacy League (now Adult Literacy League) in Orlando.
Barbara became a certified volunteer tutor trainer for Laubach Literacy, traveling across the United States and Canada starting literacy councils and serving as a trustee for Laubach Literacy International.
What started as a search for area camps for her children turned into a lifelong passion for the YMCA of Central Florida. She started as a volunteer board member and, upon learning volunteers don’t have much authority, rose through the ranks to become the first female board chair of both the YMCA of Central Florida and the YMCA of the USA.
For many years, Barbara was the only woman to head that 16 million-member not-for-profit association.
For eight years Barbara also represented the YMCA of the USA on the Executive Committee of the World Alliance of YMCAs, based in Switzerland. During those years, Barbara traveled extensively, visiting more than 50 countries where YMCAs are established.
She and colleagues were instrumental in starting the West Orange YMCA in 1971. After the Ropers contributed toward the facility’s expansion, the name was changed to the Roper YMCA Family Center.
At the 2019 General Assembly, Barbara was inducted into the National YMCA Hall of Fame for a lifetime of commitment to the mission and cause of the Y. Most recently, she was a trustee and a member of the Y’s volunteer executive committee and the metropolitan board of directors.
Each year, the YMCA of Central Florida awards the Barbara Roper Advocacy Award to one volunteer.
“I think that she could get her way with either a fist or a finesse, and I think that she did that in a lot of domains,” Becky Roper said.
She was asked to join the board of the newly established public broadcasting station, WMFE, in Orlando where she served as the first woman to chair that board in 1970 and 1971. She was elected to the national board of the Public Broadcasting Service in 1972 and served 11 years.
In Central Florida Barbara served on the board of various civic and not-for-profit organizations such as Loch Haven Museum, Eckerd College, Community Foundation of Central Florida, National Safety Council, First National Bank of Winter Park, Blue Ridge Assembly, Winter Garden Heritage Foundation and Health Central Foundation.
The Ropers supported the creation of Valencia Community College so more local people could attend college. She was deeply involved in nursing and other programs that provided clear pathways for women to enter and be successful in the workforce. Barbara was trustee emeritus of the Valencia College Foundation for her longtime service to the foundation board and college mission.
Barbara developed a passion for adventure and started a travel agency, Tops-N-Travel, in Winter Garden. She owned, operated and served as president of the company for 18 years.
When each of their nine grandchildren turned 13, Bert and Barbara took them on a vacation trip to any place around the world.
Family vacations were true adventures for the Ropers, and Barbara and Bert exposed their children to “other cultural norms and nature and poverty and beauty,” Becky Roper said.
Multiple generations of the Roper family — sometimes up to 24 people — frequently took extensive trips all over the world. Her time with the travel agency helped foster the love of exploring other countries, and she shared that passion with her family.
“She was always laughing, always smiling,” Becky Roper said. “I started looking back through all the pictures and … most of them she was smiling and laughing in.”
Beginning in 2003, Barbara was instrumental in the formation of the Garden Theater in Winter Garden’s historic downtown, where she is recognized as a founding member and emeritus trustee. The theater opened in 2008.
Barbara received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Piedmont College as well as other recognitions.
Barbara’s tenacity served her well in life. Her children marveled at the countless lives she improved.
“Mom was raised in … Pittsburgh, and I think when this community became her home, the opportunities she had growing up as a woman were not available to a lot of people she was meeting,” Becky Roper said. “That’s why she was the first one to teach somebody how to read … how to help with education; she was a teacher always. Even in our family she was the teacher. … She did not think like any of the other women.”
Two of Barbara’s children, Becky Roper and Charlie Roper, remember her as having high expectations of her family but also as being extremely supportive throughout their lives.
“I think that having two super strong parents … allowed us as children to see the modeling of what it’s like to be a strong opinionated person,” Becky Roper said. “It was a really strong family unit.”
“I’m proud of the number of females she’s influenced and modeled a pathway for,” Charlie Roper said. “I look at so many people who have reached out … ‘Your mother was such a model for me to be able to do what we’re doing.’”
“She was supportive of a lot of organizations that might not have been supported by her peers at that time,” her children said.
The children and grandchild intend to carry on the work started by Bert and Barbara.
“We’re going to continue the philanthropic work both of our parents have done and hopefully be leaders in the West Orange County community and Central Florida community,” Charlie Roper said. “Mom and Dad never told us to volunteer in the community; it was always something they modeled. If you’re going to live in the community, you need to give back to the community.”
The family said Roper is the last of her generation on both sides of her family.
A celebration of life will be held in the near future.
Besides Becky Roper and Charlie Roper, Barbara has survived by two other children, Edward (and Erin) and Preston (and Katie); grandchildren, Chase Stafford (Kate Melting-Miller), Sadie Stafford, Bryce Roper, Bennet Roper, Ellen Roper, Gregory Roper, Sutton Roper, Renee Roper and Faye Roper.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be directed in Roper’s name to one of the organizations she cherished: Valencia Community College, valencia.org/donate/; Central Florida YMCA, ymcacf.org/community/advocatespotlight/barbaraoper/; or Garden Theater Inc, gardentheatre.org/big-fundraiser-2021/.