Influential Salem Developer Still Dynamic

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He’s got a walker and an assistant who drives him around town and keeps an eye on him during the day. The body wears down a bit when you turn 92, a milestone he made a little less than a month ago. The birthday party was a good one with his children and their families, and reaching 92 makes a man think about his long life, too.

“I guess I’ve done some good work in Salem,” Luke Waldrop said. “Don’t tell anybody I told you that, though.”

Waldrop has the mind of a very keen 30-year-old, exercises at the Y every afternoon, makes and takes his own business calls, and dresses better than most men.

Luke Waldrop in his office at Spartan Square
Luke Waldrop in his office at Spartan Square

He’s in the office every morning over at Spartan Square at 10ish, barking out orders with a soft touch most of the time.   Trademark bow tie, big personality, bold opinions, and laughter every other minute. Still running on all cylinders.

More cylinders than money can buy, and Luke Waldrop’s made a lot of money.

“ Who are you, young man?” he bellowed in a way that was welcoming when his deputy, Sandi Thomas, told him someone wanted to see him over at the round table.

“Sit right there, son, I’m on my way to talk.” Man, can this man talk.

Waldrop is the man who’s shaped significant segments of the Salem that people see and the homes they live in. The name  became ubiquitous when he ran Waldrop Realty, and after a few decades of that he’s been running Waldrop Development out of a long, rectangular, spartan room near the Spartan Square courtyard for about as long as the shopping center has been there. Which is 40 years or so.

Nothing plush or lush about it. An office. Where office stuff happens.

“It’s perfect,” Waldrop said. “I come to these huge headquarters for a few hours, I go home and take a nap, I exercise, I eat a good dinner, watch a little TV to see if anything’s going on with UVa sports, and go to bed. That’s my day. And I love it.

“Oh, I hang out with my dog, Charlie, too,” Waldrop added.  “He’s a good guy for an old guy to have around.”

In a profile story many years ago, Louis Stephens “Luke” Waldrop said if a person wants to be successful, he or she should love what they do and stick to it. Waldrop wins on both counts.

“I am persistent, I’ll give me that,” he said.

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“You’ve teed a few people off over the years, too, I’d bet,” a reporter responded. “I hear things.”

“I’m afraid I have,” he said. “’Fraid I have.”

This man is never short on candor.

Waldrop has been in the real estate and development business since the mid-1950s or so. Bought, sold, and developed some 1,500 to 2,000 homes in the Valley. Maybe more. He doesn’t count.

In Salem, he developed, among other areas, Middletown Gardens, West Club Forest, Rolling Hills, Woodbridge, the Harrogate community, Salem Terrace at Harrogate, Caroline Forest, Spartan Square and many other business parcels along West Main.

Waldrop Realty was a major real estate company for years with offices in Salem and Roanoke County.

In SW Roanoke County, Waldrop’s imprint is wide, including Winnbrook and Rolling Hills.

Still, for a man with nearly three-quarters of a century in real estate under his belt, Waldrop appears genuinely and remarkably humble. He questions whether he’s done all that much.

Yet he’s also a businessman who almost never questions his own judgment.

Deputy runner-of-things in the Waldrop world Sandi Thomas said, “He is the He.”

Quite often Luke says to Sandi, “It’s okay for us to disagree, because I’m going to decide.”

“Deputy” Thomas is as funny as her longtime boss is. Dresses a little different, too, like Luke does. She was wearing some sort of saddle oxfords when I met her, has cool glasses, sassy hair, and is as smart as she can be.

Sandi’s thing is computers, technology systems. Just the sort of help Luke Waldrop needs and has needed for a long time.

Sandi Thomas

“I don’t mess with computers,” Waldrop said. “My brain is just fine, thank you. I like to think I can figure stuff out, or ask people like Sandi…well, Sandi – to figure it out for me.”

“Don’t let Luke kid you,” Sandi said. “He was always ahead of the curve. Again and again, he thought something up that made the business – and the field better– and made sure someone did it for him just right. He served the customer.”

Waldrop does use a machine for something. He uses it to read. A big magnifying system sits on his desk at work. They make these machines a little more advanced these days, but Waldrop likes the one he has.

He was reading the Times-Register, but the magnifier only shows him about four words at a time.

“I need the words that large,” he said. “That’s okay. I’ve gotten used to it. It does take a while to read the paper, though.”

Laughter.

The man knows people and can talk to any stranger as if they’re best friends. He spends a lot of time at Starbucks doing just that.

Sandi Thomas said, “He’s a charmer now, and he always has been.”

A charmer with an edge when a sharp point needs to be made.

He makes an impression, indeed, and the world makes an impression on him. Waldrop remembers almost everything, even at 92. Everything that happened an hour ago; everything that happened 50 years ago.

“Always been that way,” he said. “But don’t hold it against me.”

“Luke is listening,” Thomas said. “He’s always listening. And he’s interested in what people have to say. They can tell that right away. So they open up.”

Waldrop was born in Roanoke.

“Where?”

“On Allison Avenue,” he said. “Second floor, room on the right, when you’re looking at the house.”

During a reporter’s visit to headquarters, talking about old times and new times, a tenant stopped by to talk about a leak. They had a plan to get it fixed.

Then Waldrop’s phone rang. He answered with a trademark, “Speak to me from the heart.”

It was someone from Salem Terrace, the assisted living center he developed and of which he remains very proud. They talked and talked.

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He hung up.“She says the water doesn’t seem right over there right now,” Waldrop said. “Seems kinda ‘hard.’

“I told her that’s because it’s Salem water.”

The laughter lets loose. Only one or two times during a visit did Luke Waldrop’s mirth miss a beat, really.

One was when he said, almost out of the blue, “My father died when I was 14. Fell out of a building, he did. Just fell while he was inspecting some property, and it killed him.”

Waldrop was quiet, then, for a few moments. “That wasn’t easy, no. Remember it like it was yesterday.”

In some ways, it seems as if Waldrop hasn’t stopped moving since. Deep grief can send someone in unpredictable directions. One article called Waldrop “a grasshopper.”

Waldrop went to Virginia for college, joined the Navy and served in Okinawa during World War II, survived it, came home.

He was ready to become a doctor. Medical school first, of course. But he and his wife had a baby. It would be their first of six children.

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“Our little family needed some income,” he said. “Can’t do much without it.”

Waldrop asked around and a real estate man let him do some work for him. The rest took care of itself.

Before his dad died, he was big in the area auto business, and owned Roanoke Auto and Implements for years. Luke Waldrop’s grandfather had been in real estate.

“I didn’t realize I was paying that much attention to him, John Bear. My mother’s father. Guess I was. He was a successful man. Sold a lot of houses to doctors, he did.”

Waldrop’s sold a lot of houses to a lot to people from all walks of life. That one-time 14-year-old boy who lost his dad and had to grow up in a hurry has sure made something of himself.

“How would you describe Luke Waldrop?” he was asked. “Tough? People say you’re tough.”

Waldrop contemplated. “People are right about that,” he said. “Tough, yep. But I would also say I am honest. I would say I am loyal. And I’d say I’ve tried to help a lot of people.”

“What would your critics say?”

“That I’m too tough,” he said. “I always negotiate. And it’s true, I can have a short temper sometimes. I suppose not everyone is a fan.

“You can’t be successful in business if you have nothing but admirers,” he said. “But I know I’m a good person who’s tried to do good things.”

His deputy, Sandi Thomas: “Even when he seems gruff, he’s not really gruff. Part of it’s an act. Mostly, he’s a happy man who likes to see other people happy, too. He wants people to have a good life.”

For many, that’s started with a good home. A home Luke Waldrop had something to do with creating.

A reporter had to sneak in a few difficult questions, even if Waldrop is 92 and welcoming.

“Is there any unrest among your tenants? Maybe the leases are getting more expensive? Too costly? I hear things.”

“There’s always changes,” he said. “In the end, I’m the guy who’s got to pay the bills and keep the lights on.

“Our rates are competitive and always have been. I think I take care of my people pretty well.”

Another question: “I heard some kind of buzz about your main tenant, Kroger, looking at some different property.”

Silence. Serious. Answer. “”Kroger is fine.”

Not a hint of laughter on that one. He’s a businessman through and through.

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His assistant arrived. It was time to go. It seemed as if Luke Waldrop would have talked all day if he didn’t need a nap and some exercise and a good meal. Guy’s got a lot of nerve to have so much verve. For a 92-year-old.

“Who’s counting?” he said. “Not me.”

He and his walker walked out. Waldrop rides in his own car, the one with the license plate, “LSW 6.” For the six children.

As he was getting in and buckling up in the hot sun, Waldrop said, “You know, son, I can’t see. That’s why I can’t drive.”

He’s still driving forward, though. At 92, the Salem developer still takes advantage of every minute. Still likes making deals and managing property. Still wears pride on his sleeve, suspenders to hold his dress pants up, along with his signature, multi-colored bow ties. He’s a got a great-looking watch on his wrist. Time always matters to him.

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Luke Waldrop was smiling wide under the hot sun when he pulled the car door shut. The window went down. As he’d said an hour earlier, “It’s been a good life. No, wait. Make that a great life.”

LSW 6 was soon around the corner and on its way out of Spartan Square. Its passenger, Luke Waldrop, would surely be back in the morning.