BOTETOURT COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) -The mountains around Eagle Rock, Virginia were the backdrop to the early life of a man you’ve probably never heard of.
But one, it is hoped, you never forget.
“And let’s be honest at the outset. Norvel Lee is not Botetourt County’s most famous son. He’s just not,” remarked Botetourt County Board of Supervisors member Steve Clinton Saturday. But he should be. He should be.”
It is here, off the highway Norvel Lee traversed as a young man, that his life’s work is being celebrated.
“Just to hear all the accolades and stuff that we never even knew growing up,” said Tiffany Ayler to a crowd gathered off of Highway 220. “To us, he was just Grandpa.”
Ayler’s grandpa was born to a farming family who lived a simple life in these mountains.
But Lee had sights set beyond county lines.
After earning high marks as a student at the Academy Hill School for Negroes in Fincastle, Lee joined the Military and trained as a Tuskegee Airman.
A pronounced stammer kept him from the skies, but it was at Howard where he really soared.
Lee took up boxing. And it took him to the Olympics.
In 1952, he brought home Gold to Botetourt County, making him the first Black Virginian to do so.
It was while on that trip home Lee found himself in the crosshairs of the Jim Crow South. He was arrested and fined for riding in the Whites Only section of a train car.
Lee took his tenacity from the ring to the courtroom – fighting the arrest. Virginia’s Supreme Court overturned the charge, landing Lee with another win and a landmark Civil Rights Case.
But his family – didn’t know any of that.
“I never knew that so much had gone into his journey,” said Ayler. “He was just jovial, man of few words, Grandpa.”
At the Eagle Rock Library, Ayler shows off treasures from her Grandpa’s life displayed in a glass case at the library entry way.
There is memorabilia and photos of a life dedicated to service, centered around family, gilded and timeless.
It took the work of several people, including author Ken Conklin, to unearth the treasures of a well-lived life and bring them to a wider audience.
His book, Novel, documents a life that began in the green mountains of Eagle Rock.
“To write something that makes a difference in family members’ lives and other lives,” he said, “is very you know, very satisfying. Makes me want to write again!”
So, on this road in a town that formed Lee, a new chapter is being written into history.
“It’s a mistake of the past, but today we fix it,” said Clinton. “We set Norvel Lee on the path of full recognition for his athleticism, his humanity and his character.”
Added to the backdrop of his hometown, a permanent tribute to Botetourt’s most famous son. A historical marker bearing his name and his legacy.
“I miss him a lot!” said Ayler.
It’s a chance for her to honor the man who history won’t forget and thank him for all that he was and all he turned out to be.
“Hhe was just, he was everything,” she said. “He really, really was.”
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