Gilroy Roberts was a humble man of major accomplishments. Over the course of his 86 year life, he became an integral member of the numismatic community, designing a number of medals and coins for the United States and abroad. As the ninth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, Roberts solidified his reputation and place in American history, not only through his remarkable skill and expertise, but also by designing what was to become one of the most popular coins in U.S. history – the John F. Kennedy Half Dollar. Indeed, Roberts’ contributions to the U.S. and to the world of numismatics were monumental, helping form the standard that all engravers and sculptors to strive for.
Roberts was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1905. His father, a sculptor, raised the young Roberts in a highly artistic environment. As such, it came as no surprise that from an early age, Roberts displayed a natural talent for sculpting, moving from modeling clay to wood carving to stone sculpting quite easily. During High school Roberts continued to develop his technique at evening art class, studying under the well-known sculptor Paul Remy. In 1936, at the age of 31, Roberts passed the competitive Civil Service test for the post of assistant sculptor-engraver at the U.S. Mint. After only about two years, Roberts left the Mint and took a staff position at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. While serving there, he designed a number of official revenue stamps and postage stamps, including issues honoring Stephen Foster, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Eli Whitney. In May of 1994, Roberts returned to the U.S. Mint as the top assistant to Chief Sculptor & Engraver John R. Sinnock. Roberts helped the ailing Sinnock complete the designs for the Roosevelt Dime and the Franklin Half Dollar. Upon Sinnock’s death in 1947, President Harry S. Truman elected Roberts as the new Chief Sculptor & Engraver. He was officially named to the position on July 22, 1948.
During his time at the U.S. Mint, Roberts designed numerous coins and medals. He created images for a number of Congressional medals and issues in the Presidential series, including the official Mint Medals for Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. He even designed coins for a number of foreign countries, including coinage for Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Liberia and Haiti – all of which had turned to the U.S. Mint for assistance.
Of all his outstanding designs, though, one stands out above all others as Roberts’ most enduring achievement – his design of the Kennedy Half Dollar. “I guess that’s the thing I’ll always be remembered for,” he said years later. “And, more than anything else, it’s the thing I’ll remember myself.” The design itself was drafted and approved in only a matter of days following the president’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Roberts and his top assistant Frank Gasparro had only a few more days to create the completed model. Due to the time-sensitive nature of the project, Roberts simply modified the portrait he had created for the Kennedy inaugural medal, while Gasparro reconfigured the image of the presidential seal that he had produced for the medal. The coin debuted to national acclaim, hailed as one of the most beautiful in modern U.S. coinage. The Kennedy Half Dollar itself is still among the most popular coins ever issued.
Roberts retired from his position as Chief Engraver and Sculptor on October 8, 1964 at the age of 59. Upon his resignation, he accepted a position as Chairman of the General Numismatics Corporation. With the aid of Joseph M. Segel, a Philadelphia advertising executive, Roberts transformed the small company into the Franklin Mint. During his tenure at the Franklin Mint, Roberts continued to use his engraving talents, creating many more coins and medals for the mint, including a popular series of coins for the British Virgin Islands and a set of medals featuring birds. Then, in1980, he retired from his post at the Franklin Mint.
Though he no longer chaired the Franklin Mint, he continued to lend his artistic talents and skills on a consultant basis until he passed on January 26, 1992. Indeed, Roberts’ experience and expertise were something of a rarity, placing him in the elite class of the numismatic community. His legacy lives on through his designs, capturing the public’s imagination and forever inspiring the generations of engravers and sculptors that followed.