New TAMU Central Texas head shares passion for education while honoring mother who went missing in 1989

KWTX News 10 at 10P
Published: Oct. 30, 2022 at 10:46 PM CDT
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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) - The new executive director for student success, equity and inclusion at A&M Central Texas is sharing her passion for higher education while honoring her mother who went missing more than 3 decades ago. When you see Stephanie Legree-Roberts behind the desk at Warrior Hall it’s hard to believe she endured a childhood of abuse from her father, the loss of her mother and uncertainty for her future.

Stephanie spent her younger years in a house filled with horror and a lack of hope and her father’s alcohol induced abuse forced them into a lifetime of struggle. She says he was a naturally scary person, constantly keeping them on edge but that her mother still did what she could to provide a somewhat normal childhood.

“She was doing the very best that she could. She was still finding a way to put clothes on our back and working three to four jobs at a time,” Roberts recalls.

She adds that she can now see, as an adult, why her mother felt like she couldn’t leave her father and even though it was apparent her mother had lost faith in her own future she was still pushing her children to want more in life.

Because of her home life circumstances, Stephanie started to fall behind in school comparing it to walking through quicksand. But by her senior year, she had fallen too far behind to catch up so she decided to drop out. She still remembers the look on her mother’s face when she told her.

“I remember her being incredibly disappointed that I wasn’t going to graduate, and it just killed me to see that look on her face because she’s gone now so she doesn’t know that I tried to fix it,” Roberts said with tears in her eyes.

She says her mother was sassy and so full of life but that her father never truly let her mother live. As Stephanie and her siblings got older they started to talk with their mother about plans for leaving their situation, but that day never actually came. That’s because Stephanie’s mother, Viola, disappeared the year after Stephanie dropped out of high school.

“The minute she starts trying to do something for herself, she has a job she loves and friends she feels good about, it’s over,” she remembers.

She spent months trying to investigate and get help finding Viola and was certain that her disappearance was at the hand’s of her father and his family was involved. She recalls her father telling police that Stephanie had something to do with it which led police to launch an investigation in to her. This further proved to her that she was placing blame on the right people. However, during this time of grief she says she also found her chance to grow.

“Suddenly, my motivation kicked in and I was working two to three jobs and doing anything I could to stay out of trouble,” Stephanie says.

While trying to find herself, she was continuing to search for answers on what happened to her mom but when she started digging deeper into Viola’s disappearance, her world was flipped upside down.

“My grandma said ‘I’m taking you to work,’ so she took me to the video store, drops me off and says ‘I won’t be picking you back up, I’ll bring you some stuff,’ she said ‘you can’t come back to my house,” Stephanie remembers.

This forced her to spend every penny she had earned since she started working to ensure she had a roof over her head. She had her cousin bring her all the money she had that was stored in a little box, and she used it to rent a room out of another woman’s home. She says that even though she felt like she was in quicksand she still wanted to do more with her life.

Before her mom had disappeared she recommended that Stephanie get her GED, so that’s what she did. While working towards her GED, she started filling out college applications hoping that it would restore her faith in her future. With her applications she included a heartfelt letter explaining her life and situation, unfortunately because of her educational background she was mostly met with rejection. However she wasn’t letting go of her dream to be something more than a casino worker, which is the path most people in her hometown took when in this situation. Her patience eventually paid off because she finally got the response she was longing from for from Pace University in Pleasantville, New York.

“I got a letter back from their admissions office, and I’m reading what this lady is saying and she’s telling me that she really enjoyed my letter and that they’re excited to hear about my interests and want to know more about me and she asked if I could call her,” Stephanie explains.

She says that phone call played a pivotal part in changing the course of her life, and adds that out of all the letters she received back that was the only one to offer a sense of hope for her future.

During this phone call, Stephanie learned that she would have to do much than just get her GED and that she was going to have to find a way to get a high school diploma. So that’s what Stephanie did, for two years she went to work and came home to her tiny room and studied. She says the moment she found out she was accepted she was shocked and truly couldn’t believe that all her work had finally paid off.

Her faith in herself had been restored, but her family wasn’t convinced. She was living with her mother’s brother in New York the summer before her first semester, who she had to prove to that she had even been accepted. She says she understands it now because her mother’s family wasn’t people she knew well due to the distance her father forced between them. It took many miles walked, trains traveled and buses ridden to get her to her new beginning, but she was able to step on campus for her freshman year with some newfound confidence.

After her mother’s disappearance and being forced to move in with her father’s mother, her grandmother, a lot of her personal items she was forced to leave behind. And with the lack of financial security available to her, she constantly felt a beat behind her peers. Stephanie brought everything she had to her name which was no more than a coat, some shoes, and her cassette tapes all which her being carried inside her only pillowcase.

“I was about to be 21, and there’s my three 18-year-old roommates. And the room was packed with parents, little brothers and sisters, and these big shopping bags filled with blankets and comforters and lamps and rugs,” Stephanie says, “And I remember just looking around the room at all this awesome chaos and thinking this is gonna suck,” Stephanie says while choking up.

She reminded herself of why she was there but seeing her roommates with their families made her feel like she was missing an important part to this journey. But she did what she knew she had to do, she persevered all the way to graduation day. In her four years at Pace she had become a mentor, a tutor, homecoming queen and even senior class president.

“I was able to reinvent myself, I was able to find a way to experience and discover what I always knew was available to me but I didn’t know how I was going to access it,” she explains.

She says she credits her educators that never gave up on her and now she is able to pay it forward to her students.

“I always try to encourage them and remind them that these problems are only temporary if you stick with it,” she says.

And now she is able to better understand students no matter their path and help them find hope and restore their faith in themselves all while honoring her mother every step of the way.

Fast forward 30 years almost to do the day of her disappearance and Viola got her name back. Stephanie says her and her siblings worked with NAMUS at the University of North Texas and Charlie’s Project to locate her and find out what happened. Viola had died from strangulation and was actually found in Harlem, New York, two hours away from where they lived in New Jersey, the day after she disappeared. Viola spent three decades as a Jane Doe because no one ever came forward to claim her, but now she has a name and home once again.