Asking people in Pine Bluff about Dr. Clifton Roaf will produce answers that are variations on a theme: He was an “amazing man,” a “warrior” and a “humanitarian” who persevered through varied obstacles to become one of Pine Bluff's most successful residents and a voice for his community.
Not only did Roaf, who died Tuesday at the age of 76, leave behind a legacy of winning smiles as a local dentist, he also had a long history of working to enhance the community. Friends said he embodied the idea and set himself on a mission to improve everything around him for the greater good, whether it was his community or the people in it.
Many say his death leaves a void that is unable to be filled.
“He was a great man that we admired as a boss, a friend, and a change agent in Pine Bluff,” said Tommy May, chairman of the Simmons Foundation, who had known Roaf since May moved to Pine Bluff in 1987. “He was willing to push for change. He was willing to step out and talk about things that needed to be changed whether it was education, government or cleaning our city up.”
Rotary Club of Pine Bluff president Carolyn Blakely said she was alerted to Roaf's passing via email.
“I didn't know he had been sick and I hadn't seen him in a while,” Blakely said, describing him as outgoing and generous. “He hadn't been to Rotary meetings in a while and I asked somebody about him and they said 'I hadn't seen him, I don't know what's going on'.”
One of nine children, Roaf was a Pine Bluffian through and through.
He graduated from Merrill High School, an all-black school, during a time in which Pine Bluff was segregated. In 2014, during University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's 27th Annual Chancellor's Benefit for the Arts, in which he was honored for his significant contributions to the university, he confessed he was unsure that he would ever get to college. But it was his teachers who were products of AM&N College, now The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, who, he said, left an “indelible imprint on his life” during his time in high school.In addition to just being a wonderful human being, he was a tremendous asset to the Pine Bluff School District and the city of Pine Bluff, because he cared so much about the Pine Bluff School District, city of Pine Bluff and more than that he cared so much about the kids of our city. That permeated everything he did and was the motivator for all of the things that he did. He did a lot. Taylor Eubank, who served on the Pine Bluff School Board with Roaf for 10 years
The following year, he headed north for Michigan State, where he left his hometown to play football. However, a career-ending injury to his knee would later sideline him. After completing his education at Michigan State, he went on to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University's College of Dentistry. There, he would receive his doctor of dental surgery (DDS) degree. Afterwards, Roaf and his wife, Andree Layton Roaf, who he met at Michigan State, returned to Pine Bluff.
“He was passionate about football,” said David Brown, who served on the Jefferson Regional Medical Center board with Roaf for 12 years. “He loved Michigan State. He loved his children and he loved his wife.”
Upon returning home in 1969, Roaf established the Roaf and Caudle Dental Clinic located on Linden Street. Roaf and his wife had four children, and both leave behind a host of grandchildren. Andree, who was a judge, passed away in 2009. She was the first black woman to serve on the Arkansas State Supreme Court and was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1996.
“I would say that him and Judge Roaf were trailblazers in Pine Bluff and beyond,” May said. “In thinking about ways to make things happen, he was not interested in spending a lot of time talking about negative things in the past. He was more interested in finding ways to do good things in the present, and I admired that in him tremendously.”
A football legacy
Although Roaf was a quality football player in his own right, he had a son who was even greater. Willie Roaf is considered one of the greatest offensive tackles to ever play the game. Willie has often told reporters that his mother would have preferred that he become a doctor or an attorney, according to a blog entry from Rex Nelson, who founded a website on southern culture titled “Rex Nelson Southern Fried.”
Nelson wrote that Willie was attracting so little interest from college recruiters as a football player at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching to basketball. Finally, Willie decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University. He was 6-4, 220 pounds when he went to Tech, small for a college offensive lineman. By his sophomore season, he was 6-5, 300 pounds.
Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss and West Virginia, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him by his senior season. Willie was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted that year. Willie spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints. He started 131 games for New Orleans and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.
A torn ligament in his right knee forced Willie to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Willie was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in 13 seasons. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade teams for the 1990s and 2000s.
“It's amazing to think a kid like me from Pine Bluff, barely recruited to college and signing with a program just entering NCAA Division I, could end up one of the best to play the game at my position,” Nelson quoted Willie as saying. “It shows young football players from Arkansas that with a lot of hard work and great character you can achieve anything. I had great coaches and teammates along the way to help guide me. I always competed hard and strived to be the best.”
Willie Roaf could not be reached for comment on his father's passing.
'A wonderful human being'
In addition to serving the needs of the community in his dental office, Roaf's civic engagement kept him actively busy outside of his business. His commitment to the rebuilding and future of his community was the driving force behind his devotion to servant-leadership.
“I knew him from Rotary and I served on a couple of boards with him,” said colleague Joe Dempsey. “I always found him to be an intelligent and very thoughtful person. He was always willing to help somebody.”
As a member of the Pine Bluff School Board, he pushed for equal educational opportunities for all students in the district especially having grown up in the segregated south. In a 2014 interview with The Pine Bluff Commercial, Roaf voiced his frustrations with children in the Pine Bluff School District not getting an education, thus being ill-prepared for life outside of school.
He said,“If we do not get this right, Pine Bluff will die,” adding that it was just a matter of time. Roaf went on to say that there wasn't any reason the district could not be a model citing that he attended school during the height of segregation.
“In addition to just being a wonderful human being, he was a tremendous asset to the Pine Bluff School District and the city of Pine Bluff, because he cared so much about the Pine Bluff School District, city of Pine Bluff and more than that he cared so much about the kids of our city,” said Taylor Eubank, who served on the Pine Bluff School Board with Roaf for 10 years. “That permeated everything he did and was the motivator for all of the things that he did. He did a lot.”
As an advocate for change, Roaf fought hard to make sure race relations in Pine Bluff kept moving forward. He was seen and heard working hard to connect people of all backgrounds together for the one common goal — making Pine Bluff a city to be proud of.
“Dr. Roaf was a real pioneer in Pine Bluff with regard to bridging the gap between the races here,” said George Makris, who met Roaf when he was in high school and remained friends.
“He served on the Pine Bluff School Board at a critical time during integration to some really trying times particularly for Dr. Roaf in the community. He did it with as much integrity and he did it for the right reasons. This community owes him so much. There were just a few folks like Dr. Roaf who understood what had to be done and were willing to take the heat in the community to make sure things got done the right way — that integrity never wavered.”
Roaf served on various organizations, including but not limited to the Rotary Club of Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff Planning Commission, Pine Bluff Inter-Faith Council, Jefferson County Ad Hoc Committee for Voter Registration, Governor's Commission to Study the Death Penalty, State Board for Higher Education, the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Historical Museum Commission and he served on the boards for Southeast Arkansas Red Cross, Simmons First National Bank, Jefferson Regional Medical Center and United Way.
“He always promoted Pine Bluff,” Brown said. “He did everything he could to make Pine Bluff better, education better for everyone and as far as his time at the hospital to make JRMC the best hospital it could be because that was going to make Pine Bluff a better place. He gave everything he had to whatever the cause was that he supported and if he were here, he'd say he gave everything he could.”
Even though Roaf is gone, his standard for pushing Pine Bluff forward will remain. Those in the community see his good work as just the beginning of what others will continue.
“How would Cliff feel about these actions?” Makris said, adding that would now be the litmus test to doing the right thing. “Would Dr. Roaf approve of these actions? Is it in everyone's best interest to do what we're getting ready to do? And if we can just remember that premise and base our decisions on that, we're going to make really, really good decisions.”
Thinking back to the last conversation he had with Roaf, Makris said Roaf believed there was much room for improvement in Pine Bluff and, most importantly, it could be done.
“I would say that if Dr. Roaf could snap his fingers or wave a magic wand, it would be to create that kind of trust across our community that we could all work together toward a common goal of success,” said Makris. “And that's what he (strived) for everyday in his life."
May said: "He's one of the most optimistic and positive-thinking citizens and we will miss him greatly. I love Dr. Roaf and his family as personal friends, my boss and my whole family misses him.”
Funeral Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, Sept. 22, at St. Hurricane Baptist Church. Interment will be in Graceland Cemetery in the Cedar Grove Section. Visitation will be from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, at Indiana Street Baptist Church. Services are being provided by Brown Funeral Home of Pine Bluff.