There is a true “Renaissance Woman” amongst us … driving the same roads we drive. A lady of many talents. She plays the piano, guitar and drums. She paints, using an easel, not a ladder. She was the salutatorian of her high school graduating class. She enjoys Mercedes and rides a beautiful Brandywine Sunglow-colored Harley Davidson hog.
Today’s Our Town Hero is East Tennessee through and through, a proud sixth generation Sevier County girl. Did we mention her other talents, like replacing spark plugs, emptying oil pans, changing the oil and tires, a first responder with basic life support skills?
If you’re ever lucky enough to meet Karen Roberts, she’s one person you will never forget. As she heads out to work on Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings, she always says, “Let’s go look for trouble.”
On average she drives approximately 1,100 miles during her three-day, 12 ½-hour shifts as a supervisor with the Region 1 Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) Help Incident Response team … those yellow trucks you see waiting to help someone. As a highway response supervisor, she is part of the 17-person team working out of TDOT’s Strawberry Plains Pike offices. She typically supervises five Help drivers and also is an active Help professional and has been for 17 years.
When this 58-year-old steps out of the Help truck, drivers do double-takes. She surprises people. She’s the only female Help professional on the road in East Tennessee’s Region 1.
In 2006 she left the Sevierville Police Department after 14 years as a dispatcher for a dispatch job at TDOT. After three years with the headsets on, she transitioned to the field. “I just got tired of being inside and I knew I could do the job outside,” she said. And do it she has.
Her late father, Johnny Roberts, was a Baptist minister and a master mechanic who worked at two car dealerships and also had his own garage across the road from their home – Roberts Garage – for 25 years. She was 8 when he opened the garage. “That was my day care center,” she said. “Mom was at work so I stayed at the garage and Dad taught me the business.”
Her mother, Shirley, worked at the old Stewart’s Drugstore in Sevierville for 49 years and was a weaver in the 1960s at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Her parents died on the same day a year apart – Shirley in August 2021 and Johnny in August 2022 at 89.
Their only child, she still hops on her riding mower and cuts the grass at their house and around the garage. It’s a stress buster, she says, as is her painting. Her cousin is Mary John Tino, wife of acclaimed Sevierville artist Robert Tino, known in the art world for his paintings of the Great Smoky Mountains. Painting and being in Tino’s painting classes are big stress fighters for her.
Before her days at the police department, she spent 10 years at the Bank of Sevierville. Then she joined the police department where she met a Marine, Lt. George Deckard. He served two tours in Vietnam and pulled two years at the U.S. Embassy in Yugoslavia. She was 39 when they married. “I was picky,” she says.
They exchanged vows at sunset overlooking Kapalua Bay on Maui on Feb. 3, 2004. Two months after coming home, their lives changed. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and died 18 months later on Oct. 20, 2005. Shattered, she stepped away from work for a year. She returned to Maui for a month for his memorial service. “I spent a lot of time reflecting on everything.” During that year she joined 11 others on an eight-day, 3,600-mile motorcycle trip to Canada, Nova Scotia, Maine and Niagara Falls.
“I grieved during the 18 months before he died and when he died I felt a sense of relief,” she said. “Three weeks later it hit me like a ton of bricks. My faith pulled me through it all.”
A year after Deckard passed away, Roberts began working at TDOT.
To put it mildly, she loves the job. “I’ve always been in customer service and I enjoy helping people. When I’ve solved their problem and get them back on the road, I can see that I have made a difference,” she explains. “When people are sitting there in crisis mode next to the traffic, they can lose all sense of being and kinda panic. I calm them down and problem solve. Our goal with every stop is to have them back on the road within 15 minutes for their safety and everyone’s safety.
“I silently pray every morning before we head out and I pray during the day, every day,” Roberts said. She and her team patrol I-40, I-75, I-275, I-640 and I-140. She will go outside of Knox County if there is an interstate closure due to a major accident or incident.
During her time on the road, she has been a first responder on 40 fatalities. Many times the Help trucks are the first to arrive at accident scenes. “If there are no medical teams there I assess the injuries, stop the bleeding and if someone is in cardiac arrest I use the AED (Automated External Defibrillator) to help them,” she said.
Considering her years on the road, she has her stories to tell and she knows how to tell them. Here are a few of them, abbreviated for brevity:
- On June 25, she stopped on I-275 south just past Woodland Avenue to assist a woman with her kid involved in a non-injury accident. She parked her truck to block the left and middle lanes from traffic coming around the curve. One man was going too fast. She was out of her truck, lights were flashing, and the man rammed into her truck, knocking it about 15 feet. “I watched it. No ID and no driver’s license. One word – idiot.”
- Two or three months ago she was driving on I-40 East near Zoo Knoxville at East Cherry Street and saw something moving on the shoulder. “It was eight little ducklings and the mother duck was dead. Poor things. I called for another guy to come help and it took us an hour to catch all eight of them. We didn’t have anything to catch them with. They all survived and now I have a fish net in my truck. I also have a lasso for horses and cows that get on the interstate sometimes.”
- An 18-wheeler almost didn’t see her stopped on the right shoulder and got too close and almost knocked the driver’s side rearview mirror off the truck. He kept right on going, too. “I saw him coming and I said out loud ‘Jesus take the wheel.’ I thought it was over.”
- She stopped to help a young woman with a flat tire who didn’t know what to do. “So, I got her spare out and changed her tire and she was sobbing and wouldn’t stop. I asked her what was wrong. She had just come from having her cat put down and needed a shoulder to cry on, so I hugged her and we talked until she calmed down,” Roberts said.
Stress is part and parcel of this job. As she was driving downtown on I-40 East in May – in the middle of what used to be called “Malfunction Junction” – she looked across the median and saw a little boy jump out of a stopped car. The boy, 9, started running down the interstate and ran across to the I-275 North ramp. “I got off at Hall of Fame Drive and came back as fast I could,” she said.
When she entered the I-275 ramp the kid was running next to the median barrier and his mother was chasing him. “It’s a miracle neither of them got killed,” Roberts said.
“As I was driving behind them I hit my air horn and the boy stopped running. The mother caught up with him and was holding on to his wrist and he was fighting to get away. I stopped behind them and got out and walked up behind the kid and put my arms around him.
“I started talking with him and I told him that he can’t run on the interstate like this, that he really scared me and then I felt him relax. I asked if he wanted to get in the truck with me and he did. He was OK then, poor kid. I drove them to meet with the family and off they went.
“It was and is by far the most stressful thing for me I’ve had on the job, ever,” she said. “The little guy was autistic and scared. Took awhile for my heart rate to go down. But that’s what we do out there.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name.