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As we look back over 40 years, we asked several fine writers to talk about what this place means to them.
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“I came and I stayed – 38 years so far – and I will stay.”
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“What’s up with a sign that reads ‘Any Time is Laundry Time – Last Wash 8:45’?”
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Matt Joy, with wife Jessica and children Miles and Ari:
“We were elated to find out we would be continuing our journey in Roanoke.”
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Roland Lazenby’s blend of erudition and playfulness has resulted in successful careers as a book author and teacher. His writing routine? In bed by 10, up at 2, write till 7, back to bed for an hour and a half.
The story below is excerpted from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the full story view our digital edition for FREE today!
The Seeds of Roanoke Can Get Inside You
A little girl in the back of a ‘47 Chevy out on Williamson Road has seen her Roanoke connections, experiences and contributions come to full, lifetime fruition.
The first time I laid eyes on Roanoke, Virginia, was in about 1955 from the backseat of a maroon 1947 Chevy. My dad and mom came here looking for work to get him off the small tobacco farm they owned in central Kentucky – the farm my mom was convinced would kill both of them – he physically, she mentally – if they didn’t escape.
My dad didn’t find work but, we did find the Mill Mountain Zoo. My younger brother and I were entranced by the Mother Goose theme and thought the entrance through the Old Woman’s giant shoe was pure magic. We loved the Three Little Pigs and their three little houses and the actual school house to which Mary’s Little Lamb followed her one day, which of course was against the rules.
Here we were in the actual place where our favorite fairy tale characters lived. We laughed ourselves silly at our distorted bodies reflected in the crazy wavy mirror, which is still there and even less flattering nowadays.
Mom had a less satisfying experience when we pulled up in front of a “tourist home” on Williamson Road for the night. I suppose we were there because a tourist home, where the owner rented out a couple of rooms in her house to overnight guests, was cheaper than a motel. The owner showed us to our room, which I remember only as being large, airy, and clean, and presented Mom with a big rubber sheet to use “under the children.” After she left, Mom, highly offended, flung the rubber sheet down on the bed in disgust. No children of hers ever had or ever would pee in the bed and she resented the insinuation otherwise.
I don’t remember another thing about the tourist home or the “old biddy,” as Mom called her, or the trip itself for that matter, except for hearing Webb Pierce singing “You’re in the Jailhouse Now” as I sat in the backseat and the journey continued.
Dad didn’t find a job on that trip and we went back to Kentucky to regroup. Mom finally got us off the farm and into better jobs and a better life. She never was entirely successful in getting the farm out of my dad though.
But somehow on that short trip some little seeds flew through the open windows of that old Chevy and planted themselves in both my brother’s and my psyches. My brother came to Roanoke as a young married man and stayed long enough to produce a son – a true Roanoke native, born at Roanoke Memorial Hospital. I came later after he and his family had moved on.
Maybe more of those motes landed on me because I came and stayed – 38 years so far – and I will stay. Roanoke is my home – the place I’ve always felt at home even without a single relative here. I am supposed to be here. Incredibly wonderful things have happened to me here – great jobs, great loves, great friends, an out-of-the-blue appointment to Roanoke City Council. Believe me, that little eight-year-old girl from Kentucky was with me the day I took the oath of office. I even have a key to the city! Could Mom and Dad only have been able to look into the future as they rumbled through the city all those years ago.
Last summer I put to bed a 47-year journalism and marketing career that included a seven-year stint as editor of The Roanoker, and I can say without hesitation that the work I did for this magazine is an accomplishment of which I am most proud. I still occasionally run into somebody who remembers something I wrote for The Roanoker (I left there 31 years ago!) and I just about die of shock and pleasure. One of “my Roanokers” was placed in a time capsule buried at the downtown library, put there when the 1980s addition (now not affectionately called Bern Ewert’s addition) was completed. As that thing was buried, once again I pinched my eight-year-old self to make sure I wasn’t still asleep in the back of the Chevy.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for rolling down the windows as we passed through. Roanoke has been very good to me. I’m proud to have a history here. And I’m proud to congratulate Richard Wells and Kurt Rheinheimer (whom I picked as my successor, another proud accomplishment) on an extraordinary run. See you at the 45th anniversary.I
The 40-year Star Among Us
Sandra Brown Kelly talks to an old friend: “Michael Jordan: The Life” is just the tip of the writing iceberg for the talented and relentless Roland Lazenby, who got his writing start making $2.70 an hour at the Blacksburg Sun.
I have known Roland Lazenby for more than 30 years – not quite as long as The Roanoker has been around, but a long time. We both worked at The Roanoke Times – me for more than 30 years, Roland for about four. The newspaper paid for our graduate degrees from Hollins University. Later, we both worked as adjunct instructors at area colleges for many years. And through the years, Roland and I have stayed in touch with an occasional chat. Always, two things are clear. Roland can really talk – part of his success as an interviewer and author – and he cares deeply about family, especially Karen, his wife of 39 years.
And I suppose if anyone could break my bias against jock sports books, it would be Roland. His new biography of Michael Jordan, “Michael Jordan: The Life” in fact did just that. I began reading, and then I read and read, learning so much more than about basketball. I never knew about schools built in the early 1900s for African Americans by the Rosenwald Fund, set up by Julius Rosenwald, Sears Roebuck & Co., president. Some of Jordan’s family members played sports at one of those schools in Rocky Point, N.C. (Pender County). And, as interesting as Michael Jordan is, his great-grandfather Dawson Jordan is also. The strong role his mother Deloris played in Jordan’s life also is part of a good read.
At a recent catch-up at Mill Mountain Coffee in Salem, I learned some new things about Roland. He had a terrible GPA at Virginia Military Institute, switched his major from biology to English, and when he graduated, went to work as a junior-high English teacher, after selling cars for a while. From there, he was the wrestling coach at Blacksburg High School, worked at the Blacksburg Sun ($2.70 an hour) and later at the News Leader in Staunton. Along the way, he won some Virginia Press Association awards and ended up covering night cops at The Roanoke Times where he eventually reported on Salem and Roanoke County government.
Roland got into the Hollins Creative Writing Program with a feature, “Death of a Nobody,” about a homeless guy who died on the Roanoke City Market. Strange that homeless people are still an issue in that locale. All the while Roland worked as reporter and teacher, he also wrote books. His first was in 1983 and was about Ralph Sampson (“A Life Above the Rim”). Sampson, from Harrisonburg, was a star at the University of Virginia and the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. That book was excerpted by the Associated Press and Sporting Magazine.
Roland covered the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, and he wrote several quick-hit books that paid him handsomely, by writer standards. He also became an expert on the Lakers:
“It’s a narrow field,” he points out. Overall, Roland has written about five dozen nonfiction books on basketball and football, but a turning point came with “Blood on the Horns: The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.” That book got good reviews but did not pan out financially. Roland was his own agent and the small publishing house he worked with went bankrupt. Still, he continued to write books and teach, spending 11 years at Virginia Tech, spanning the time of the April 2007 shootings on campus that left 32 people dead. He and journalism students in August of that year published a book of coverage on the tragedy, “April 16. Virginia Tech Remembers.”
The most difficult part of writing the Jordan book? “There was an incident of abuse in Michael’s family; that was difficult to include, but I wanted to tell the cultural story.”
Michael Jordan was not interviewed for the book: “Nobody wants a biography,” Roland notes. “He helped me some.” The book’s details came from good, solid research using resources like death certificates at Ancestry.com and personal visits to places where the Jordan family members lived.
Roland has always been good about promoting and this book has taken him to New York and Miami and produced more than 180 radio interviews. He maintains the routine he has had for years: bed at 10, get up at 2 a.m. and write until 7; sleep another one-and-a-half hours.
His latest project is a book for VMI about its winning football program from 1953 to 1965 under the leadership of John McKenna. It is being written with friend and fellow author Mike Ashley.
And, I’m still reading, and enjoying the Jordan work. “The Life” is 700 pages, even though Roland cut 100 pages from it after listening to the 17 CDs it took for the oral version. The Boston Globe review asserted it is the “best volume ever written on perhaps basketball’s greatest player.” The Chicago Tribune, which takes note of the biography being longer than most of those about Abraham Lincoln, gives high praise for its thoroughness and its depiction of how family influenced Jordan.
Darn it, Roland. After I finish this book, I have to go back and read the one on Jerry West and the one on Phil Jackson and the one . . .
And, so should everyone else.