BY DENNIS SEID
TUPELO - The well-used phone on Barbara Roberts' desk in the lobby of Building II is lit like a Christmas tree. Never mind the other phone on the desk.
"Tupelo Furniture Market, this is Barbara, please hold," Roberts says in her always gentle, reassuring and charming manner. She repeats the phrase three more times before getting back to the first caller. By this time, all 10 phone lines are ringing.
Roberts smoothly takes care of the next call, and the next. In between, she talks to a reporter and signs for a package from a delivery company.
It's all in a day's - or in this case, a few minutes' - work. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I just love meeting people," she said. "You meet so many people with this job, and some are so interesting."
With the spring furniture market kicking off Wednesday, Roberts had yet another chance to meet buyers from across the country, and a few international guests, too. With two markets a year, Roberts has met her share of interesting people. But don't ask her to guess how many - she's been working at the market for 171-2 years.
Bill Cleveland, president of the market, doesn't mince words when describing Roberts.
"She's the voice of the furniture market; she's our top ambassador," he said. "She remembers people, remembers their names, where they're from, who they work for ... it's amazing. You don't know how difficult her job is until she's on a break. Then you wonder how she does everything."
Roberts knew about multitasking long before it became popular. She wears many hats, including receptionist, scheduler, greeter and problem-solver.
Job description? Forget it.
"I really don't know," she said with a chuckle.
Tupelo Furniture Market CEO V.M. Cleveland, Bill's brother, said Roberts doesn't need a job description.
"She pretty much knows the infrastructure and all of the Ws - the who, what, when, where and why - of everything here," he said. "She's usually the first contact for most people coming here, whether it's by phone or in person, and she does just a fantastic job for us."
Her co-workers agree.
"She'll help anybody," said Melissa Kelly, the events coordinator for the market. "I've been here 11 years and she's like a second mother. We've all cried and laughed together. You'll never find a better friend than Barbara."
And friends from near and far let Roberts know how much they cared for her when she was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. Roberts didn't want anybody to know, and quietly slipped out a rear entrance of the market one Saturday, telling only Kelly that she would be out for a little while.
Even then, Roberts wanted to disrupt work as little as possible.
"We got people calling from all over the country asking about her," V.M. Cleveland said. "And when she came back, I thought I would put her back here in my office and away from the front because I thought it wouldn't be quite as hectic. But she was miserable. She really missed talking and meeting all those people."
Even now, Roberts downplays her cancer fight, preferring to talk about others.
"I just want to do what I can to make people happy," Roberts said, shrugging her shoulders.
And don't even mention retirement.
"I wouldn't know what to do," she said. "I'll be here as long as they want me."
Dana Steelman, with TFM exhibitor Bernard's, shares the affection for Roberts.
"I love her - she's an angel," Steelman said. "She's a tremendous help to us. She does whatever we want, no matter how difficult it might be."
Quipped Kelly: "She'll do things that nobody else will do, either. And if we don't know what to do, we ask Barbara."
Contact Daily Journal business editor Dennis Seid at 678-1578 or email@example.com.