The red brick sorority house, Roberta Hall, sits at the east edge of the Northwest Missouri State University campus in Maryville, a sea of well-trimmed grass stretching out under some of the 1,300 trees that shade the university.
Roberta Hall wasn’t always a sorority house, and it wasn’t always called Roberta. In the early days it was the only women’s residence hall on campus and was simply known as Residence Hall. That changed after the explosion.
Railroad tracks once ran behind the building and, on April 28, 1951, a gasoline storage tank on the tracks exploded, sending a steel beam crashing into the building and causing a fire. Thirty women were injured, four of them critically, including a student named Roberta Steele.
“Roberta was in the shower when the explosion hit,” Cathy Palmer, archivist at Northwest, said. “She wouldn’t come out for help because she was naked.”
Roberta died a year and a half later and, over the decades, her spirit is said to haunt the building.
Linda Beatty of Kansas City attended Northwest from 1984 to 1988 and lived in Roberta Hall in 1987.
“I was on the first floor,” Linda said. “(My roommate and I) were just lying there watching TV … and we heard the crickety old doorknob move. We thought someone was coming in.”
Linda even said, “come in,” but no one did – and the doorknob kept turning.
“I got frustrated and opened the door and there was no one there,” she said.
Then Linda turned the doorknob on the hallway side of the door. That doorknob moved. The doorknob inside the room did not.
“Somebody was moving the doorknob on the inside,” she said.
Jane Costello went to school with Roberta and thought the legend of the haunting was fitting.
“She was lots of fun,” Jane said in a summer 2000 interview for Northwest’s Oral History program. Jane died in 2005. “She’s being credited with the scaring – the haunting of Roberta Hall – and I had to laugh because you know if anybody’s going to do it, it would be Roberta. She had a really terrific sense of humor.”
Sarah Wayman, who graduated from Northwest in 2005, was a member of the Sigma Kappa sorority and lived in Roberta Hall from fall 2002 to spring 2003. Sarah said that although she only experienced flickering lights and strange noises while she lived there, Robert got the blame for anything out of the ordinary
“Anything wrong that happened was blamed on Roberta,” Sarah said. “We discovered one morning that, hey, we can’t get in our bathroom. We called each other saying ‘did you lock the door to the bathroom?’”
They couldn’t have, because the doors locked on the inside.
“We blamed it on Roberta.”
Towels fall off their racks in Robert Hall, pictures fall off the wall, stereos turn on and off, and drawers fly from dressers.
Amanda Root, former president of the Phi Mu sorority, lived in Roberta Hall for two years before graduating in 2006.
“I was looking in the mirror getting ready and I saw my roommate’s drawer shoot out of the dresser and it really kind of scared me,” she said. “I turned and was like ‘what the hell was that?’ I grabbed my bag and left.”
But the flying drawer wasn’t enough to prepare her for an unwelcome late-night visitor.
“I had gotten up because I’d heard someone walking around and I thought it was my roommate, but I looked over and she was in bed,” Amanda said. “I hadn’t encountered anything like that but when I heard somebody walking around, it really freaked me out. Our floor is really squeaky. I was really scared. I put the covers over my head.”
Although Roberta has never harmed anyone, many sorority sisters have tried many things to keep her out of their rooms to no avail. Robert continues to make herself known to residents of the hall that bears her name.
Copyright 2008 by Jason Offutt
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