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CASEY: Writer examines Roanoke’s ‘most famous’ | Dan Casey

Dan Smith, a formerly ink-stained wretch of local renown, is 72. At age 18, he launched his journalism career in Asheville, North Carolina, with a $5-per-night gig as a sports copy boy. That means that he’s been toiling in the craft for more than five decades.

Smith has worked as a writer or editor at many publications in the Roanoke Valley, including this newspaper, the Vinton Messenger and the Salem Times-Register. For 20 years, he was editor of the now-defunct Blue Ridge Business Journal and he co-founded Valley Business FRONT magazine.

He’s still going as a freelancer — “formerly” in the opening sentence refers to the sad fact that ink’s on its way out, not Smith. He remains a wretch. His sturdy sense of humor will forgive me for the characterization.

Anyway, back in October he sought my advice about selling a particular article. It’s a list he called “The most famous Roanokers.” I was zero help, and Smith ultimately found no takers. So he put it on his blog, the ironically named “fromtheeditr.” And it’s a fascinating read, numbering 37 luminaries.

After you peruse it, “You start to feel a connection,” Smith told me. “Roanoke feels a little bit more important than before. Forget that, ‘There’s nothing to do in Roanoke bull—-.’ ”

Before we get into who made the final cut, consider Smith’s definition of “Roanoker.” Basically, it’s anyone who was born in or lived in the Roanoke Valley “at any time during their lives.”

Smith reaches as far back in history as 1884, with Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering black filmmaker who in 1922 established a corporate office in Gainsboro, the historic northwest Roanoke neighborhood.

“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,” Smith writes.

Some of the names require scant explanation, such as sports stars J.J. Redick, the 2002 Cave Spring High grad who starred for Duke and currently plays basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. (On Oct. 20, Redick shot 10-of 20 for 31 points as Philadelphia eked out a 116-115 win over Orlando.)

Also on the list are Tiki and Ronde Barber (Cave Spring High football players who went on to UVa, the NFL and careers in broadcasting); George Lynch (a Patrick Henry High hoops star who help the University of North Carolina win a national championship, and later played in the pros); and the late George Preas, a star lineman at Jefferson High and Virginia Tech who blocked for Johnny Unitas when the Baltimore Colts won the 1958 NFL championship.

The “famous” list also includes entertainment celebrities, such as singer Wayne Newton (he lived in southeast Roanoke as a young boy); Hollywood actress Debbie Reynolds (who lived part-time on Sugarloaf Mountain during her 1984-96 marriage to a local real-estate developer); and actor John Payne, a Roanoke native who starred in the 1947 movie classic “Miracle on 34th Street.”

But have you heard of René Marie, who now tours the world as a Grammy-nominated jazz singer? The Warrenton native moved to Roanoke when she was 9, and worked as a janitor, and at McDonalds, and later at First Union Bank. In 1996, at age 41, she launched a singing career under her married name, René Croan.

“She’s probably the most popular jazz singer in Chicago,” a big jazz town, Smith told me. (Marie’s next performance is Dec. 8 at Duke University. Tickets are $25.)

My wife, Donna, and I were blown away when we heard Marie sing (for no cover charge) in the late 1990s at a long-closed restaurant on Jefferson Street. Marie’s first recordings (she’s put out 10 albums) were at Salem’s Flat Five Studios. (Fun fact: One of her sons, Charlottesville musician Michael Croan, was a wise-cracking news intern here at The Roanoke Times when he was an undergrad at the University of Virginia.)

And what about William Grant Naboré, born in Roanoke in 1941? I’d never heard of the guy. Smith called him “one of the two or three best piano players in the world.”

As a young African-American whose last name was then Neighbors, Naboré took some of his very first lessons in a home in the Old Southwest neighborhood.

“He was a student of my favorite ex-wife’s grandmother,” Smith said. The teacher’s name was Kathleen Kelly Coxe, who’s no longer with us. And some of Coxe’s neighbors in the 1940s were unhappy about that arrangement.

“People burned a cross in her front yard,” Smith told me. Today, Naboré holds an endowed chair with the University of Music at the Lugano Conservatory in Switzerland.

There’s a lot of successful writers on the list. Those include Beth Macy, Mary Bishop, and Roland Lazenby, all of whom worked at one time here at this newspaper, and who still live in the Roanoke Valley. Others are former students at Hollins University.

Did you know Margaret Wise Brown, author of one of the bestselling children’s books of all time, “Goodnight Moon,” was a Hollins grad? I didn’t — and I’ve read that book, aloud, at least 1,000 times. Other “famous” Hollins grads included Pulitzer prize-winning author Annie Dillard (“A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”) and Lee Smith, an O Henry Award winner who wrote the New York Times bestseller “The Last Girls.”

Probably the most delicious tidbit in the entire article is about Dillard and Lee Smith. They were “go-go dancers for an all-girl rock band, the Virginia Woolfs, while at Hollins together,” Dan Smith writes.

I can’t get to all the other names; instead, we’ll close this with some legendary alums from Roanoke College. We would not want that Salem institution to feel left out.

One is the late John Mulheren, a major benefactors of the college. He was successful Wall Street trader in the 1980s, and suffered from bipolar disorder. Mulheren became entangled in an inside-trading scandal with Ivan Boesky (Mulheren’s convictions were later overturned). At one point in that mess, he was arrested in New Jersey carrying a semi-automatic rifle after his wife told police he was going after a witness in the case against him.

Another is John McAfee, who founded a famous computer antivirus company and later sold it for something like $100 million. He’s still with us, and is perhaps better known as a subject of an international manhunt related to a murder investigation.

In 2012, police in the Central American nation of Belize sought McAfee for questioning in the killing of his Belizean neighbor, a fellow ex-pat with whom McAfee had tangled. McAfee denied involvement and claimed Belize police framed him. He made headlines when he escaped the country and later reappreared in the United States. The Showtime Networks later produced a 2016 documentary about the case, “Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee.”

“The guys from Roanoke College are legends,” Smith cracked. But “It’s not because they did great things. It’s because they were crazy-a– wild.”

That’s a bit more than half of Smith’s list — I don’t have space for the rest. But you ought to give it look. It’s full of surprising and delightful information.

You can find the whole thing on Smith’s blog at fromtheeditr.com.

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