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Roberta Gividen Foley – A Determined Spirit


by Leeann Mione

It seems that the adjectives used to describe Debbie Foley change often, depending on how well the person speaking knows her and her life story. Casual acquaintances might describe her as “tough”, “intimidating” or “serious.”

Those that know her well however, know that she is a “softie” and simply a chip off the old block; the maternal block that is. Foley is single-minded in purpose and driven to achieve and those qualities were instilled in her by a mother who was determined never to give up and utterly devoted to her. A mother who fought harder than most to make sure her daughter’s dreams were fulfilled and her hardships were minimal.

Roberta Gividen grew up in the little town of Sulphur, Ky., next to the railroad tracks. Her family was very poor and she walked more than a mile to her high school, which was perched on the top of a mountain in Sulphur. Every day, Roberta climbed 100 steps to reach her destination. They weren’t difficult to maneuver for Roberta, nor something to waste time thinking or complaining about.

When she graduated from high school in 1934, the country was in the grip of the Depression and working at the Sulphur grocery store, Gividen saw her wage drop from 50 cents to 25 cents per day. Bread lines were the norm. Once again, not to be put off by adversity and knowing the future was up to her, she decided to strike out on her own for the big city of Louisville. She saved her money and when she could, she took the train by herself to Louisville. She knew no one, but she went to Spencerian Business School and found odd jobs babysitting in exchange for room and board.

After business school, Roberta had trouble finding a job. In 1937, the great flood came and she was lucky to escape with her life. She helped with the clean up efforts in order to make some extra money. Putting aside 10 cents here and 20 cents there, Gividen was able to save enough to buy a one-way ticket back to Sulphur. She was homesick and ready to return to her hometown.

The day before she was supposed to take the train back home, she got a job at Denunzio’s Fruit Company as a bookkeeper. It was while taking a customer’s car for service at the local mechanic’s shop, that Gividen met Ira Foley. It wasn’t long before they fell in love, but company policy prohibited her from getting married.

Not wanting to lose her job, she and Ira traveled to New Albany, Indiana to get married so that the state of Kentucky would have no record of their union. Ira joined the Navy and in fact was on a submarine in Pearl Harbor. Roberta by this time had returned home to Sulphur to endure the agonizing wait until her husband returned.

When Ira Foley came home, the couple began raising their family, daughters Debbie and Barbara and son Don. Debbie was always the apple of her mother’s eye and she was horse crazy. All she ever wanted was a horse of her own. In addition to having an insurance adjusting business, her father was in the Shetland Pony business and Debbie and her brother rode the ponies until their feet dragged the ground. Debbie decided early on it was time for a “real horse”. She begged and begged but her father was less than enthusiastic. The family didn’t have a lot of money and operated their small family farm in Louisville. Ira Foley borrowed money to build barns in place of the chicken houses on the property. The farm is now the present-day site of Silver Brook Stables.

Roberta Foley, however, was determined that if Debbie wanted it, Debbie was going to have it. “I’ll keep $10 out of the grocery money every week and we’ll save money to buy you a horse,” she said to Debbie.
Debbie voraciously read the “For Sale” ads in the newspaper and eventually saw an ad for a gaited mare. Roberta and Debbie took off to see her and for $250 she was purchased. That led to another problem but the ever-determined Debbie replied to her mother when Roberta worried that they had no way to get the horse home, “I’ll just ride her home and you follow me in the car.” Debbie jumped on bareback and Roberta followed behind in the car. Missy B began Debbie Foley’s career in the horse business.

In reality, it also started Roberta’s involvement in the business. She meticulously kept records of every horse and every class and every ribbon Debbie ever received. She soon began owning horses and ponies to be trained by her daughter. Some of the horses she owned over the years included Reserve World’s Champion Premier’s High Tide, roadster pony Dark Shadows, Stonewall’s Main Attraction, World’s Champion Street Scene, Here I Am Again, Reserve World’s Champion Caramac’s Big Ticket, World’s Champion Nelson County, Forty Thieves, Lakeview’s Why Not, Manhattan Magic, Reserve World’s Champion Hometown Favorite, Closing Scene, Callaway’s Crown Jewel, At The Stroke Of Midnight and Born Leader.

The highlight of Roberta’s year was always watching her daughter show at Louisville. There were many highlights including watching many of her own horses earn world’s titles in addition to the many titles earned by Silver Brook customer horses.

For her part, Debbie was equally devoted to her mother. They were tremendous friends and confidants and they took care of each other. To Debbie, she was known simply as “Toots”.

Roberta, a widow for more than 30 years, was never one to complain or cause worry. She suffered a ruptured appendix for days before anyone had any knowledge of it. Recuperating from that life-threatening situation was just one of the major hurdles she crossed in the last few months of her life. Pneumonia, an E. Coli infection and blood transfusions due to a drastic drop in hemoglobin and blood pressure were additional problems that threatened her life more than once. At one point, the situation was so grave, the entire family gathered at her bedside, fearing she wouldn’t make it through the night.


Roberta would have none of it. She didn’t have any intention of going anywhere and in fact on the day she died, spoke to her daughter-in-law, a registered nurse, and gave no indication of any problems. Everyone was looking forward to her coming home from the hospital within a few days.

Roberta Foley tried so hard not to leave but finally had to give up the good fight. In her own style and to spare her daughter one last heartache, she chose a moment alone when her beloved daughter wasn’t looking. Toots and Bandit, probably the two greatest loves of Debbie’s life are cheering her on together and will be watching.

Roberta Foley was adamant that she be returned home and so she rests; in the family plot in the cemetery on the hill in Sulphur, Ky., overlooking the home she grew up in. Debbie walked those 100 steps just the other day.

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