The Maroon

Murdered Loyola gradute led life filled with purpose

Ramon Antonio Vargas

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Before her path fatally crossed that of her killer’s, former Loyola graduate student Nia Robertson lived life as a quintessential New Orleanian, one who was productive and aided people throughout the various stages of her educational and professional careers.

For that reason, a group of people has teamed up with Loyola University in helping to launch an endowed scholarship fund in her memory with an intended minimum of $25,000 to help finance local residents’ studies.

Kristi Ayres and other regulars got the idea over cocktails on the stools at Pal’s Bar, the neighborhood gathering place in Bayou St. John where they best got to know Robertson. It was also where Robertson was the night she was killed.

“She had such a passion for education,” said Ayres. “We decided it was the best way to keep Nia’s name alive and help someone, which was what Nia was all about.”

Ayres saw Robertson, 28, on Aug. 15, the night Eric Traczyk, a 36-year-old from New Jersey described as down on his luck with a past in law enforcement and the Army, knifed one man and then senselessly slit Robertson’s throat as he strolled out of the bar, unshaken. Ayres had just invited her to a barbecue she planned to hold a few days later.

They’d met a year before the attack, when Ayres remembers having an “after work drink” before she found herself engrossed in conversation with this “bright, smiley person.”

“Before I knew it, we had been talking for three hours,” Ayres said, chuckling, before she added sadly, “She did that with everybody.”

Those involved in the scholarship’s launch hope to help local students access the education they want in New Orleans when otherwise they might not be able to.

After all, someone pointed out in her guestbook on the D.W. Rhodes funeral home’s Web site, Nia’s name in both Swahili and Greek meant “purpose.” And her purpose always was to help New Orleans, friends said.

‘TALENTED AND DESIRED’

When Robbie Vitrano helped interview Nia Robertson for a position with the Trumpet Group, a local ad agency, he came across a dream hire.

Robertson, who graduated from Ursuline Academy in 1997 before she attended Clark Atlanta University for college, had drawn praise for her work promoting tourism for the city when she worked with an agency named GMc+. Coincidentally, Trumpet was looking to launch campaigns for tourist organizations in New Orleans and coveted her skills.

On top of that, in a field that Vitrano says has a poor record with diversity, here was a hire that helped Trumpet meet a goal all ad agencies hope to attain: to look and be like the city they’re based in.

Robertson, who was most at home socializing and dancing her way through the cultural hotbed that is the Faubourg Marigny, “was in every way contemporary New Orleans,” said Vitrano, A ’85, brand director at Trumpet and a part-time professor at Loyola University who helped the Ad Team win third place for its district competition this past spring. “Her undergraduate education was outside of the city, so she had an experience that allowed her to move among the city as a local. But color had nothing to do with it. She was talented and desired, and we were delighted that she, who happened to be an African-American woman from the city, was interested in us.”

Trumpet’s unanimous decision to hire her paid off immediately.

Robertson joined a team that organized the entire communications disposition for the Louisiana State Economic Development – an international marketing effort meant to drive attention, investments and services to help steady local businesses after Hurricane Katrina. Robertson and her co-workers pitched their ideas in places as far away as China, Japan and Europe.

“It was a huge contribution,” and a success for the LSED, Vitrano said. When the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau tasked Trumpet with helping it re-mantle a flattened tourist industry, which funds approximately 40 percent of the city’s public services, Robertson and her team communicated through the mass media that New Orleans could take on visitors shortly after the storm – “that New Orleans’ culture wasn’t a thing that was broken, but that it was a way that locals process life in ways that are pretty obvious, like when we take rudimentary things and make them into art to entertain ourselves or the world,” Vitrano said.

After Robertson, who Vitrano said was influenced by the public service her mother Marvel performed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, left Trumpet and worked as an employee for the Road Home program, it was just a more hands-on way for Robertson to help citizens recover their hobbled city, Vitrano said.

For Sherry Alexander, an associate professor with the School of Mass Communication, her success in the field was evident because of her “outstanding work” as a graduate student.

Alexander, who chaired Robertson’s thesis committee, remembers two different professional researchers cited studies done in her thesis on access to public school records.

“That’s not usual, for professionals to cite you like that,” Alexander said. “That was outstanding work she did.”

HASN’T SUNK IN

For many who encountered her, Nia Robertson’s passing has yet to sink in.

Though she graduated from Ursuline Academy 10 years ago, the school held a mass in her memory at its Our Lady of Prompt Succor chapel.

“Obviously, she left quite a mark,” Sherry Alexander said.

For Robbie Vitrano, “The hardest thing anyone experiences with losing a young person is realizing that someone who was entirely vibrant is no longer around.” He remembered how when Trumpet’s chief financial officer, who was a sky diver, made it a point to get everyone in their office to hop off a plane a mile in the sky, it was unimposing Robertson who frightenedly but bravely volunteered and went through with it.

Her picture, plummeting through the sky in a tandem parachute as she cinematically screams, still hangs in Trumpet’s art gallery-like offices.

Ramon Antonio Vargas can be reached at [email protected]

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Since 1923 • For a greater Loyola
Murdered Loyola gradute led life filled with purpose