DICK BAYNTON: Call Me Mr. Mayor

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea (Right) with VA Tech leaders at a recent VTC Research building addition celebration in Roanoke.

It is a testament to our present Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr. that he has high regard for simplicity, truth and a practical and understandable approach to all situations. This strategy has resulted in continued selection as an ‘All American City’ and growth in city residents to above 100,000. Our Mayor is proud of the city that has evolved from “Big Lick’ of 1852 and chartered in 1874.  In 1882 the name was changed to Roanoke and in 1884 the urban area was chartered as an independent city in Roanoke County.

When Sherman was born in Winslow Hospital in 1952 in Danville, VA, no one knew what opportunities would unfold in front of him. His father Charles worked at Dan River Mills* and upon its closing worked at the Goodyear Tire Company in town. Sherman’s mother worked at Davis Commercial Laundry. The Lea family increased when another son and a daughter were born later. Sherman’s brother lives in Richmond and his sister lives in Danville.

Sherman’s education began at a small school in Pittsylvania County designated for Blacks that consisted of one big room; with one teacher instilling knowledge in students in grades one through seven. In the fifth grade, he attended the new Southside Elementary in Blairs. Seventh grade attendance found Sherman at Southside High School also in Blairs, a small community in Pittsylvania County.

His senior year of high school was spent at ‘integrated’ Dan River High School in Ringgold where he graduated in 1970. Being tall and heavy-set, Sherman played tight-end and defensive end on the football team. Good news came to Sherman when Virginia Union University in Richmond offered him an athletic/academic scholarship for attendance at this predominately Black institution. Their program worked out well and Sherman graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in sociology in 1974. Like all college graduates, he probed the job market where he could apply his recently acquired education. One opportunity offered was as a policeman in Baltimore.

However, Sherman decided to return to hometown Danville taking a job at Dan River Mills. Realizing that more responsibility was desirable, he applied for and was hired in 1976 as a probation/parole officer in Richmond. While living and working in Richmond, he saw an attractive gal at a car wash on a visit to Danville, started dating and as often happens; ‘Clara’ and Sherman tied the marital knot on February 13th, 1977. As is customary with married couples, a daughter named ‘Erica’ was born early in their marriage and now teaches school at Byrd Middle School in Vinton. Three years later son Sherman, Jr. was born and is the founding president of New Hope Support Services staffed by 120 employees who deal with victims of mental disability at several Virginia locations including Roanoke.

In 1984 Sherman was appointed Virginia’s first Black Chief Probation/Parole officer for Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Halifax Counties. In 1992, Sherman was appointed Director of Community Corrections for the area encompassing the western portion of Virginia and supervising about 500 state workers. Moving to Roanoke in 1992, Sherman has served on the Roanoke City School Board since 1997 where he was chair person in 2000-2001. In 2004 he became a city councilman, favoring the perpetuation of Victory Stadium. Sherman became Vice-Mayor in 2008 until 2010 when he won the mayoral office with 82% favorable votes in 2016.

Mayor Sherman P. Lea has been honored recently by being inducted into the Virginia Union ‘Athletic Hall of Fame.’ He is Associate Pastor at Garden of Prayer Church in Roanoke and the Doctorate of Humane Letters has been conferred by Bethlehem Bible College. Sherman P. Lea mentions that he is considering a run for a second term as Mayor and is proud of the great Star City of the South and all the achievements that have developed during his term of office.

*Note: Dan River Mills was a mainstay employer in Danville and Pittsylvania County, founded in 1882 and employing as many as 14,000 during the WWII years. However, due to imports from Asia and Central America, postwar production slowed. Layoffs were persistent and the iconic firm filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and was purchased by an Indian company in 2006 that shipped the remaining 1,100 jobs overseas. Goodyear Tire Company came to town in 1966 and seems to be thriving.

Dick Baynton