By Matt de Simone
A marker honoring a former Tuskegee Airman and Olympic gold medalist now stands in Gala.
During a dedication ceremony off Route 220 North in Botetourt County last Saturday, members of Botetourt County administration, friends, and family unveiled the Norvell LaFallette Ray Lee historical marker.
“Let’s be honest at the outset,” Botetourt County Board of Supervisors representative Steve Clinton stated during the ceremony. “Norvel Lee is not Botetourt County’s most famous son. He’s just not, but he should be… He should be. For a variety of frankly inadequate reasons (I’m looking at you, Jim Crow), we are approximately a half century late in doing this, but today we carry on the process of recognizing Mr. Lee as Botetourt’s most famous son.”
The marker was erected jointly by Botetourt County, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR). Friends and family members of Norvell Lee, including his granddaughter, Tiffany Ayler from Nome, Alaska, attended the unveiling, along with dignitaries and writer Ken Conklin who authored Lee’s biography, “Norvel.”
“Words can’t express how much this moment means to our family,” Ayler said during the dedication ceremony. “We want to thank you all so much. This is a precious moment for us to hear all the accolades and things we never knew growing up. To us, he was just ‘Grandpa.'”
Lt. Col. Norvel Lee was raised in Eagle Rock during the time of Jim Crow. He went on to become an Olympic champion, Tuskegee Airman, World War II veteran, prominent educator, youth mentor, and civil rights leader. Following a 1948 arrest in Covington for refusing to leave a white-only section of a train car, the Virginia Supreme Court of appeals reversed his conviction in 1949. Three years later, Lee won an Olympic gold medal in boxing for the United States in Helsinki, Finland.
Last year, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution requesting the placement of a VDHR marker for Norvel Lee near the U.S. Route 220/Route 622 intersection (Narrow Passage Road) in the Gala area, about 2.5 miles north of the Eagle Rock Library, now known as the Norvel Lee Memorial Highway.
A 2016 article about Lee in The Fincastle Herald, based on information submitted by Judy Barnett and her late husband, Edward, sparked Conklin’s interest.
Botetourt County Director of Communications Tiffany Bradbury hosted the proceedings, introducing guest speakers Del. Terry Austin, Steve Clinton, DHR representative Brendan Burke, former mayor of Roanoke Rev. Nelson Harris, Ken Conklin, and Lee’s granddaughter Tiffany Ayler.
Austin thanked Lee and his family, Conklin for his request for the marker, and Nelson for submitting the application. He spoke about Austin’s accomplishments and credited Lee’s stance on segregation.
“I don’t think any of us can imagine the accomplishments of this man, who left the community of Eagle Rock, traveled to the army to become a Tuskegee Airman, went on to three Golden Gloves Awards, and then has to give up his seat,” Austin said. “To his credit, Mr. Lee declined to do so and was arrested. Ultimately, the Virginia Supreme Court did the right thing and ruled in Mr. Lee’s favor because no individual should be considered from another.”
Austin shared his hopes that people will be inspired by Lee’s achievements.
Clinton mentioned that Lee was asked by the prosecutor during Lee’s civil rights trial in Covington why Lee didn’t move into the “section that was set aside for [Lee],” Lee unapologetically responded, “I didn’t think it was necessary.”
Clinton made note that Lee “walked with kings,” stating, “[Lee’s] cohorts included United States Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon. He associated with Rocky Marciano, Joe, Louis, Floyd Patterson, and countless Olympians worldwide.
“He formed friendships with foreign diplomats, heads of state in West Africa, senior military officers, and the business and government leaders of the District of Columbia… Those are the lofty circles Norvel ran in, and those are the kings that he walked with, but he never lost the common touch.
“Lee had a devastating right jab in the boxing arena; he had a devastating sense of logic in life’s arena.”
Clinton said that Lee struck him as the kind of person you would want over for a Saturday backyard barbeque.
“I find myself wishing I had known him, but I didn’t, and neither did most of you,” Clinton concluded. “It’s a mistake of the past. Today, we fix it. We set Norvel Lee on the path of full recognition for his athleticism, humanity, and character.”
DHR representative Brendan Burke next spoke, explaining what goes into erecting historical markers in Virginia, and thanked everyone who was a part of the project.
Rev. Nelson Harris gave a brief history of Lee’s life and thanked Conkin for his book and Conklin’s support during the application submission process. He added that he was excited about Botetourt County Administrator Gary Larrowe and Clinton’s enthusiasm about dedicating a section of the highway in honor of Lee when they first met to discuss the project.
Conklin last spoke, thanking Lee’s family and friends who attended the dedication ceremony and their connection that supported Conklin’s effort when writing “Norvell.” He also mentioned the family bringing Lee’s Olympic gold medal from the 1962 Olympics in Helsinki that was on display at the Eagle Rock Library last Saturday.
“It all came together like it was supposed to… like it was meant to be,” Conklin said.