The city of Liverpool’s greatest claim to fame is it gave birth to the music phenomenon known as The Beatles in the 1960s. Fortunately for the Marshall Islands, the world’s most famous rock band wasn’t Liverpool’s only asset.
Who could have predicted that when British electrical engineer William F. “Billy” Roberts stepped off the plane at Majuro airport on October 13, 1982 to help build the new power plant in Delap he would end up staying 27 years and become a key get-the-job-done person for the Marshall Islands government?
Roberts died earlier this week in the UK at age 67 about 10 months after suffering a heart attack and stroke while in the US early last year. He was in coma until his death.
“Billy stayed on in Majuro after the construction of the power plant was completed as part of the team of expatriates operating the power plant,” said Steve Wakefield, Billy’s longtime colleague at MEC who is currently Chief Technical Officer for the utility. “His primary task was to train Marshallese to eventually replace the expatriates operating the power plant. As Billy completed this task and was trying to leave the RMI, he was then asked to develop and manage the newly formed Marshalls Energy Company by the late President Amata Kabua in 1986.”
Roberts was about to get on the plane home in 1986 when the President called him in and asked him to manage MEC. Billy’s reply: “When the President asked me to be manager in March of 1986, I told him, I’m an engineer; I don’t own a pen. But Amata said to me, ‘Have a try. I’ll give you 12 months. If you fail, you home. If you don’t fail, we’ve got a company.’”
Countless stories of the early groundbreaking work of MEC under Billy’s command were as likely to make you roll on the floor laughing as cringe at the rudimentary nature of things in the 1980s. When MEC took over, there were almost no electric meters in use. Billing was a creative process. He recalled two early MEC employees, Jobo Lucky and Jemlok Titus, sitting at a table with meter reading logs, using a pencil and calculator. “I asked them what they were doing and they said, ‘meter readings.’ As few had meters, the MEC team estimated the charge. “See this house?” Billy said Jobo told him, pointing. “It has a dryer and air conditioning. That’s about $50.”
MEC had its work cut out for it taking what was once a Trust Territory government-fun power operation into a modern, functional business system.
Within months, MEC turned power on to Laura for the first time. Installation of hundreds of power meters ensued. The government handed MEC control of power operations at Jaluit and later Wotje and Rongrong. Majuro Water and Sewer Company came under Billy’s oversight, later Ebeye’s KAJUR utility. He was supportive of the earliest efforts to bring solar power to the RMI, with MEC managing installations around the nation.
Under Billy, MEC was a founding member of the Pacific Power Association, now a regional organization aligned with the Pacific Islands Forum. In the 1990s, the UK government appointed him their honorary consul to the Marshall Islands.
That was work. Outside of MEC, he was one of the most active members of the Marshalls Billfish Club, both as a fisherman on MEC Brits Too, and as a board member and dockside official handling fish weigh-ins, billfish banquet presentations and roasts of anglers who came up empty handed or made terrifically embarrassing mistakes, costing them fish and points. Billy handled these gambits with a cheerfulness of spirit that ensured the point of the punchline felt part of a story worth telling, not a target of derision. He was first elected MBC president in 1988, and later co-founded the All-Micronesia Fishing Tournament, which is coming up on its 25th annual competition later this year.
He served as a member and vice president of CMI’s board of regents for many years. President Kessai Note’s government conferred RMI citizen on him in 2005
The week before Billy departed, nearly 27 years to the day he arrived, I wrote in the October 9, 2009 edition of the Journal: “People come and go in the Marshall Islands. Some leave big marks or are quickly forgotten. But it is not hyperbole to say that when Billy Roberts stepped on the Continental flight for Honolulu Wednesday night, it marked the end of an era. Roberts has been indivisible from the delivery of power and water, not just in Majuro but Ebeye and numerous outer islands for three decades. Under his leadership, the Marshalls Energy Company became a model company.”
Billy is survived by his wife Diane, two children — Ben and Kelly — and three grandchildren.
Steve Wakefield and Allyson Madsen contributed to this story.
See more photos of Billy Roberts in action in the February 3, 2017 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.