After a night of dinner, drinks, and laughter with his nephew Tim and great-nephew Connor, Neil J. Roberts of Orleans died in his sleep at home in the early morning of June 23, 2023. He died as he lived, his family said — on his own terms. He was 76.
The son of Arthur Chester Roberts and Mildred Agatha (Cronin) Roberts, Neil was born on Jan. 7, 1947 in Needham, where he grew up. Neil’s father was a pipe fitter known as “Big Art,” and his mother, who went by “Ma,” worked for the phone company. An accomplished athlete, Neil played baseball and hockey for Needham High School.
Neil attended Merrimack College, where he played hockey before graduating in 1969. That summer he worked laying bricks for construction projects in Boston. He went on to earn a degree from Suffolk Law School and soon thereafter settled on the Outer Cape to work with Orleans Legal Associates.
In 1973, Neil met Geraldine O’Reilly, who was working at Captain Higgins near the pier in Wellfleet. They married in 1975 and had two sons, Josh and Daniel. Neil and Geri divorced in 1991.
Neil tended “to keep his emotions bottled up,” Daniel said. “He had trouble saying, ‘I love you.’ ” Instead, he showed his love through his actions. Both Josh and Daniel played hockey in youth leagues, high school, and college. They said Neil “put over 500,000 miles on multiple cars driving us throughout the East Coast for soccer and hockey games.”
“He came to all our games, no matter when and where,” said Daniel. Through sports, he added, “he taught us about life.”
After a hockey tryout, Neil asked Daniel how it had gone. Daniel emphasized how well he had done; he didn’t fall once. “Well,” Neil said, “if you didn’t fall, maybe you didn’t push yourself hard enough.” Josh later played hockey for Princeton, and Daniel played at Hamilton College.
Neil was a voracious reader of American and European history, and his memory, Daniel said, “was like a steel trap.” He also read the dictionary, “twice,” Daniel said, which was wonderfully useful when he helped his sons prepare for their SATs.
In 1983, Neil built a house in Orleans near Nickerson State Park. He put in the cabinets and bookcases himself, in addition to a passive solar glass-walled and -ceilinged room connected to a ventilation system to heat the rest of the house.
“He was a kind of hippie,” Daniel said, who took his sons for long walks to enjoy the solitude of the state park.
“My father,” Daniel said, “was a principled man who taught us always to try to do the right thing.”
“Even the small things count,” Josh remembered his father saying. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
Neil also advised his sons to “make sure that you take care of the kid who isn’t cool in class.” Rooting for the underdog also characterized Neil’s law practice.
He was a small-town lawyer in Orleans for 50 years. He would take any case and would often be paid with whatever his clients could muster: oysters, a canoe, or tree removal.
Once, Daniel recalled, a man came up, hugged him, and asked him to thank his father for saving his son’s life.
Neil often said, “Everything in moderation, even moderation.”
After Neil’s divorce in 1991, he and Sally Lamson became close. “She became my second mom,” Daniel said, “and she taught my dad how to be more open by showing him the world.” They traveled together, and Neil began, Daniel said, to be less guarded. “She was his rock for many years,” he added.
After the birth of his two granddaughters, “Neil became a real softie,” Daniel said.
Neil is survived by his sons, Daniel Roberts, wife Sara, and daughter Maddison Mae of Denver, Colo. and Joshua Roberts, partner Leah Park, and daughter Aurelia Reina of London, England; nieces Kathy Diamadi of North Carolina and Tracy Roberts of San Francisco and their families; nephews Ben Roberts of Denver and Tim Roberts and wife Jennifer of West Virginia and their families; sister-in-law Mary Lee; his close friend Sally Lamson of Orleans; and his faithful Yardarm compadres with whom he had lunch for 40 years.
Neil — witty, boisterous, and proud — was most himself around his brothers Arthur and Bill, who predeceased him.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this obituary, published in print on July 27, incorrectly identified Mary Lee as Tim Roberts’s wife. She is Neil Roberts’s sister-in-law. Tim’s wife is Jennifer Roberts.