(THIS HAS BEEN UPDATED WITH SOME SPARKLING ADDITIONS, SUGGESTED BY FACEBOOK FRIENDS. GO TO THE LAST FEW PARAGRAPHS TO SEE WHO’S BEEN ADDED.)
When you think of famous Roanokers, the list almost always starts—these days anyway—with professional sports stars. But when we put a little thought into it, we come up with some truly instrumental national figures in the arts, sports, education, law, politics, journalism, music and finance.
First, let’s define “Roanoker” for the purposes of this story. It is anybody who was born in Roanoke or lived here at any time during their lives. Roanoke is a small city whose citizens are as often as not from somewhere else, so being called a “Roanoker” doesn’t necessarily designate a birth place.
Modern float-to-the-top choices are the sports stars (pro football players Tiki and Ronde Barber, pro basketball players J.J. Redick and George Lynch) and the authors (novelists Sharyn McCrumb and Rod Belcher and non-fiction stars Roland Lazenby, Beth Macy and Pulitzer winner Mary Bishop). But there is much beyond them.
With that said, here are a list of Roanokers of the past 100-plus years that you probably ought to know, beginning in 1884 with the birth of Oscar Micheaux. We’re not going all the way back to the Civil War (William Breckinridge) or the Revolution (William Fleming) or the distant history of a city that wasn’t even born yet.
I’m also boiling down Hollins University’s contribution to Annie Dillard, but it has produced four Pulitzer Prize winners, a poet laureate (Natasha Trethewey, who won one of the Pulitzers) and one writer of one of the most beloved children’s books n our history (Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown). Hollins also graduated internationally known photographer Sally Mann and popular author Lee Smith.
I left Booker T. Washington (suggested by two people) off the list because he lived in Franklin County, not Roanoke.
Here’s my list. You are welcome to add to it.
Stanley W. Abbott, at 29 in 1933, became one of the primary designers of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs smack through Roanoke, where he lived for a time. He was an admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park and was enthusiastic about the “design with nature” concept of road construction. According to National Parks Traveler, Abbott “believed that the parkway should function as an outdoor museum of rural life, telling the story of the mountain folk, their agricultural pursuits, and the mountain retreats of the wealthy. The parkway would speak to the visitor about life and lifestyles in the mountains. It would celebrate the blending of nature and culture.”
The Barber twins (Tiki and Ronde), pro football players, broadcasters who began their exploits at Cave Spring High and carried the football all the way to Charlottesville, where they played for the University of Virginia. Both were drafted by pro clubs (New York Giants for Tiki and Tampa Bay for Ronde). The twins each played his entire career for the club that drafted him, which is extremely unusual in today’s NFL.
R.S. (Rod) Belcher is a nationally prominent science fiction/ fantasy author and Roanoke native, who still lives in the Star City. Among his best-selling books are The Shotgun Arcana, Nightwise, Brotherhood of the Wheel and The Six Gun Tarot from Tor Publishing. Movies and/or TV series are planned for several of his works. Belcher has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done master’s work in forensic science at George Washington University, and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly.
Mary Bishop won a Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was a finalist twice as a reporter for The Roanoke Times. She recently became a memoirist with the book Don’t You Ever; My Mother and Her Secret Son from HarperCollins publishing. She lives in Roanoke.
Carter Lane Burgess, a soldier, business executive and diplomat, was born in Roanoke in 1916 (died 2002). The VMI graduate was an assistant to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower during World War II and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Personnel in the mid-1950s. The Washington Post wrote, “He overhauled the armed forces reserve system to face Cold War threats and oversaw legislation to improve military benefits involving life insurance and medical treatment.” In the late 1950s, he was president of American Machine and Foundry (AMF) and
in 1968, he was appointed Ambassador to Argentina and served on the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. He rose from a claims adjuster to president of Trans-World Airlines and AMF, which makes bowling pin setters, among other things. He died in 2002.
Mark David Chapman killed beloved singer/songwriter and former Beatle John Lennon in December of 1980. He lived on Crystal Spring Avenue in South Roanoke—a home that no longer exists; it is a church parking lot—in 1962, the seven-year-old son of a couple from Georgia. His father was transferred to Roanoke, working for Amoco. Chapman is serving a 20-years-to-life sentence and first came up for parole in 2005. He was denied parole for the 10th time. He is serving his sentence at the maximum security prison Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y.
Ann Compton was a long-time staple at ABC News, but she was educated at Hollins University and served as a young reporter at WDBJ, Channel 7 in Roanoke in 1968. She was a WDBJ intern as a Hollins junior and became its first female news reporter. She established the station’s Richmond bureau in 1973 and ABC hired her away to work in New York City. She became the first female TV reporter to cover the White House, beginning with Gerald Ford’s administration and was also one of the youngest reporters ever with that beat. She was on Air Force I with George Bush shortly after 9/11 and in 2000 was the chief Washington correspondent for ABC. She’s won a ton of professional awards but says the award most dear to heart was to be national Mother of the Year in 1988.
Adrian Cronauer, who died in the spring of 2018, gained his moment of national recognition in the Robin Williams film “Good Morning Vietnam,” which was very loosely based upon his experience as a DJ during that war. Cronauer was a Roanoke disc jockey, but there was far more to him than playing rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. He was an advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, represented the POW/MIA Office in a range of capacities, and earned the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. He did radio and TV commercials in New York and taught at the university level. But it was the misrepresentation of “Good Morning Vietnam” about an anti-war, liberal, wise-cracking DJ that made him famous, although he was a Bush Republican.
Annie Dillard, who graduated from Hollins University and married Hollins Professor Richard Dillard, won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In 1975. Her forte has been narrative prose in fiction and non-fiction and she is credited with works of poetry, essays, prose, fiction, memoir and literary criticism. She has also taught at the college level.
Henry Fowler, who was born in Roanoke in 1908, the son of a locomotive engineer, served as Secretary of the Treasury under Lyndon Johnson. He graduated from Roanoke College (where the Fowler Lecture Series by internationally prominent people remain popular) and Yale Law School. He worked his way up to Assistant General Counsel of the Tennessee Valley Authority and worked on a number of governmental advisory commissions, while running a major law firm in D.C. He became a partner at Goldman Sachs.
Oliver Hill, who was born in 1907 and lived 100 years, was a civil rights lawyer partly responsible for the success of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark case which integrated the nation’s schools. He was a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner (1999) and participated in a number of other important national legal cases, including equal pay for African-American teachers, access to school buses, voting rights, jury protection and employment protection. He practiced law for 60 years. Though a Richmond native, his early home in Roanoke’s Gainsboro section is a shrine. He graduated from Howard University Law School and began his practice of law in Roanoke (newly married to Beresenia Ann Walker, niece of Maggie Walker, after whom a Richmond High School is named). The Roanoke law practice was wobbly, and he moved to D.C. in 1936. He won his first civil rights case in 1940, working with Howard classmate Thurgood Marshall (a future Supreme Court justice), among others. His list of awards and honors is lengthy and in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, a street is named for him.
Linwood Holton was the first Republican Governor of Virginia and for a time was given consideration as a vice president when Richard Nixon had to replace Spiro Agnew, who resigned under a cloud. Gerald Ford was selected and, of course, became president. Holton, a Big Stone Gap native, graduate of W&L and Harvard Law and a WWII submariner, married Roanoker Jinx Holton and they are parents of author/historian/educator Woody, Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton Kaine (Sen. Tim Kaine’s wife), Tayloe and Dwight. During integration, Gov. Holton sent his children to integrated Richmond schools, causing something of a stir among some Virginians and when the Republican Party took a sharp rightward turn, he stayed in the center and began endorsing Democrats (including Mark Warner and his son-in-law). In 2017, Roanoke dedicated Holton Plaza and in 1999, Richmond named an elementary school for him.
David Huddleston, Hollywood actor, who starred in “Santa Claus, the Movie” and who for many years was a noted character actor in major productions, is from Vinton originally. He was in 45 movies (including “Breakheart Pass,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Producers,” “Smokey and the Bandit II,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Klansman,” “Bad Company,” “Brian’s Song,” and “Rio Lobo” (with John Wayne). He also had nearly 60 TV credits.
Wayne LaPierre, easily the most controversial figure on this list, was born in New York, but moved to Roanoke when his father transferred to the GE plant here. LaPierre is generally credited (or blamed) for moving the emphasis of the National Rifle Association, which he has led since 1991, away from a gun safety instruction organization to a gun manufacturers’ lobby with heavy political influence. He worked as a legislative aide to state delegate Vic Thomas of Roanoke, a Democrat and ardent supporter of gun rights. He has a master’s degree in government and politics.
Roland Lazenby has written more than 60 books, concentrating on the NBA in recent years, and has been a college professor, noted newspaper reporter and mentor for writers in the Roanoke region. His books on NBA stars Ralph Sampson, Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have had large national and international audiences. He was the faculty advisor (essentially editor) of Virginia Tech’s student newspaper during the mass murders of April 2007 and guided that young group to award-winning reporting of the event.
George Lynch, UNC and pro basketball player, attended Patrick Henry High, where he won a state title (1988 as a junior, transferring to Flint Hill Academy as a senior) and UNC, where he won a national championship. He finished UNC as its 14th leading scorer (1,273 points) and third-leading rebounder (1,097) in UNC history. He ranks second in steals (241). He played for five teams from 1993-2005 in the NBA, a total of 774 games. He was an assistant basketball coach for six years at SMU and is now head coach at Clark Atlanta University.
Beth Macy is a former newspaper reporter whose first book, Factory Man, became a New York Times bestseller and who has written two popular non-fiction books since. Options for the books to become movies have been sold. She is a native of Ohio, but lives in Roanoke now, as she has for decades. She is a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.
Rene (Croan) Marie is a Grammy Award-nominated (2015) jazz singer who changed her last name a few years ago when she became nationally prominent. She was born in Warrenton in 1955 and her family moved to Roanoke when she was 9. She is noted for her smooth, lovely delivery and has a good-sized, national following. Before gaining a jazz following, she was a janitor, fast food employee, grocery clerk and banker in Roanoke. Critic Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune called Marie’s talent the “most expressive jazz singing one might hope to hear. … give her a stage to herself and an opportunity to shape an evening her way, and she clearly can make a statement that uses every inch of her vocal prowess and balletic grace.” She changed her name from Croan to Marie a few years ago at the behest of her management. Her early recordings were done in Salem at Flat Five Studios. She occasionally performs with her son, Michael. She was given an ultimatum by her former husband (23 years) to give up music or him. She chose the music.
Sharyn McCrumb is a North Carolina native and former librarian at Virginia Tech, whose books—especially her ballad novels—have always been major sellers nationally. She has written more than 25 novels and two collections of short stories. McCrumb lives in Catawba and continues to regularly turn out novels. She has lived in Roanoke County for years.
Oscar Micheaux was an African-American movie-maker who lived 1884-1951 and made 44 films. He was an author, writing several novels, and director of an independent film company, running the Lincoln Motion Picture Company—the first film company owned and controlled by African-Americans. He is generally regarded as the first major African-American filmmaker, producing both silent and sound movies (most called “race films). His movies are now considered classics. He was the inspiration for Roanoke movie-maker April Marcel to become a playwright, director and actor. She works with Tim Burton’s studio in Norfolk. Roanoke erected an historical marker honoring his work in 2010 and the Post Office issued a Micheaux stamp as part of its Black Heritage series. According to a Virginia History bio in African American Trail Blazers, “in 1922 he established a corporate office in the Gainsboro neighborhood’s Strand Theatre, where he made at least six films over the next three years. Micheaux often filmed scenes in Roanoke and one movie, ‘The house Behind the Cedars (1927), of which no print survives, included a brief appearance by Oliver W. Hill, who later became an important civil rights attorney” and who is profiled earlier in this article
John Mulheren was an investor, entrepreneur and philanthropist, who graduated from Roanoke College (he was from Brooklyn) in 1971 and became a major benefactor to the Salem school. He was a significant part of a successful trading group in the 1980s who made millions of dollars, but he fell into trouble as part of an insider trading scandal (linked to the notorious Ivan Boesky). His charges were later overturned. He moved to management and again became quite successful. He died at 54 in 2003 and was remembered at Roanoke College as a student of legendary status as a prankster. He was a major supporter of the college for many years and his widow, Nancy Mulheren, continues as a major fundraiser.
William Grant Naboré (formerly Nabors) is classical pianist born 1941 in Roanoke. He studied here under Kathleen Coxe, a noted Roanoke piano teacher. A cross was once burned on Coxe’s lawn because she taught Naboré, an African-American. She ignored it. As a youngster, he was accepted at Hollins College to be taught more piano. Naboré moved to Rome in 1958 to study. He won the Premier Prix de la Virtuosité and the Prix Paderewski from the Conservatoire de Musique de Geneve. He holds the “Theo Lieven” chair for advanced studies in piano and chamber music performance at the University of Music of the Lugano Conservatory.
Wayne Newton is a Las Vegas singer with the child’s voice who became famous for his hit “Danke Schoen,” recorded in 1963 and later used in the seminal film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He was a Vegas headliner for years and reported to be the most popular entertainer ever in Vegas. Newton was often called The Midnight Idol, Mr. Las Vegas and Mr. Entertainment. His mother and father were both native Americans and during World War II, while his father was in the Navy, Newton’s mother and he lived in Roanoke. He learned to play the piano, guitar and steel guitar by the age of six, singing all the while. He left Roanoke for New Jersey while still a child.
John Payne was a Hollywood actor with an extraordinary physique who starred in the classic Christmas movie “Miracle on 34th Street” alongside a young Natalie Wood in 1947. He appeared in 59 movies during his career and helped dedicate the Roanoke star in the late 1940s.
J.J. Redick is a pro basketball player who led Roanoke’s Cave Spring High School to a state title and Duke to a national championship. He is still a professional player (with Philadelphia, his fifth team). He has played in more than 760 pro games to this point.
Debbie Reynolds was Hollywood royalty when she married Roanoke real estate developer Richard Hamlett and from 1984-1996 she lived in Roanoke. They were divorced in the 1990s. She was the mother of Carrie Fisher, who portrayed Princess Leia in “Star Wars.” Fisher’s father was singer Eddie Fisher. Reynolds was an actor and singer for nearly 70 years (1948-2016), reaching her peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Her song “Tammy” was No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1957, the same year she made the movie “Tammy and the Bachelor,” from which the song was taken. She died in 2016 at 84.
Pat Robertson is another controversial Roanoker, his contribution coming in conservative religion and politics. He
lived in Old Southwest Roanoke as a child (though he was born in Lexington) and these days serves as chancellor and CEO of Regent University and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network. He is also a minister with a national TV show. He ran for president of the U.S. as a Republican in 1988 but lost in the primaries. He is the son of former Senator Willis Robertson. * * *
(The following luminaries were missed by me on the first go-around, but sharp-eyed Facebook followers [I link my blog there] came up with some great additions.)
Nelson Bond, a science fiction writer of considerable stature, died in Roanoke in 2006 at the age of 97. He began his career writing sports and made his first science fiction sale in 1937. He wrote extensively for radio shows when radio produced serials and drama. One of his plays, “Mr. Mergenthwirker’s Lobblies,” became the first full-length play to be produced on television. He had his own ad agency in the late 1950s and sold antique books at one point. His wife, Betty, had a show on WSLS TV in Roanoke.
Margaret Wise Brown was a Hollins grad who wrote, among other popular books, the classic Goodnight Moon. I have some first-hand experience with this book, having put together an interpretation of Goodnight Moon by some of the region’s writers a few years ago at Hollins.
Gene Elders, according to well-known Roanoke musician Tommy Holcomb, is perhaps Roanoke’s most famous musician, especially among other musicians. “He played fiddle in several bands here including Woodsmoke, has been George Strait’s fiddle player in his Ace in the Hole band for about 35 years. He also played with Lyle Lovett and Joan Baez. Allison Krauss once told him that she had studied his playing in her formative years.”
Tom T. Hall was a journeyman country singer who graduated from Roanoke College and wrote the fun song “Ode to Half a Pound of Ground Round,” which had the line, “Let me tell you about the time I nearly starved to death in Roanoke, Virginia.” He worked in radio here (under the legendary King Edward Smith, whom he credited with keeping him from starving). He wrote 12 No. 1 songs (including “Harper Valley PTA”) and 26 Top 10 tunes.
Henrietta Lacks is far, far more famous in death than she was in life. She was a tiny (5 feet tall) tobacco farmer, born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, who died in 1951 of cancer. Her cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, one of the most important cell lines in medical research history.
Sally Mann is another Hollins grad who achieved international acclaim. Her focus is photography and she is often considered one of the world’s best at it. She lives in Lexington.
John McAfee founded McAfee and Associates and ran it until 1994. It was the first anti-virus software for computers. McAfee, an Englishman by birth, went to Roanoke College. He has founded several companies since McAfee and at one time his fortune was estimated at $100 million.
John Nash is the man with the “Beautiful Mind,” recreated in a recent Academy Award-winning movie. He was a mathematician, who was a paranoid schizophrenic and winner of the Nobel Prize. He lived in Roanoke periodically with his mother. He died in here in 2007 at 72.
George Preas was a Baltimore Colts lineman 1955-1965 who played at Jefferson High in Roanoke and Virginia Tech. He played during a vital age when the NFL reached TV and became the most popular sport in the U.S. Among his teammates was the legendary Johnny Unitas. Preas became a restaurant owner in Roanoke (I used to eat at his very good Red Lion).
Billy Sample is a Salem native who played three sports at Andrew Lewis High and went on to stardom in football and baseball at James Madison. He became a superb professional player (1978-1986) for the Rangers, Braves and Yankees. In high school, he played for the high school team that faced “Remember the Titans” T.C. Williams High in the state final, though Lewis was not mentioned in the movie. He became a long-time broadcaster.
Bob Slaughter was the World War II veteran who spearheaded the construction of the D-Day Memorial in Bedford. Slaughter, who at 6-foot-5 was one of the more noticeable targets during the invasion, survived D-Day and fought in Europe for the duration of the war. The Washington Post wrote, ““Bob Slaughter was once described as perhaps the best-known D-Day veteran in America. National media outlets turned to him when they needed a first-person account of the Normandy invasion. … he was an imposing presence as he led President Bill Clinton across a windswept Omaha Beach during a 50th anniversary commemoration in 1994.
And by all accounts, the National D-Day Memorial … would never have been built if not for Mr. Slaughter’s efforts.” (Personal note: I worked with Bob when I was a young sports writer and he the composing room foreman at The Roanoke Times in the 1970s.)
Lee Smith is one of the nation’s most beloved authors and is a Hollins graduate (and former commencement speaker). One of my favorite works by her is Oral History, a portion of which became a play (“Earrings”) at Lexington’s Lime Kiln Theatre. She is also a co-writer of the truly funny play “Good Ole Girls,” which had a national run. She and Pulitzer winner Annie Dillard became go-go dancers for an all-girl rock band, the Virginia Woolfs, while at Hollins together.
Early NASCAR driver Curtis Turner (born in Floyd in 1924) who lived in Roanoke for a time. He was the classic moonshiner-to-racer story, but he also became a wealthy timber salesman. He raced cars from 1949 to 1965, winning a lot of races and helping to invent NASCAR. He died in a plane crash in 1970 on the way to Roanoke.
(NOTE: My good friend Dan Casey wrote his Sunday Roanoke Times column about this list today. It’s a good read. Here you go.)