Ken Conklin arrived in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, for a visit with the family of a late Olympic boxer from Botetourt County. He was researching a potential essay, but he still didn’t quite know what exactly his project would be. By the time he left, however, Conklin knew he had a novel on his hands.
Before the publication of Conklin’s novel “Norvel,” very little was known about Olympic gold medalist Norvel Lee. “There’s really a lot more information about him when you Google him than there was when I started,” said Conklin, a retired tech professional and writer.
Conklin had only discovered Lee’s existence by accident.
On the morning of Aug. 18, 2016, while having his morning coffee, Conklin’s wife handed him the local paper, The Fincastle Herald, from the previous day; she thought the article on the front page might be of interest to her husband. The headline on the story, published at the time of the Rio Olympics, read: “Botetourt Native Won Olympic gold in the boxing ring. While that was a great accomplishment, it was not the only reason to recognize Norvel Lee.” Curious, Conklin took to the internet to see what more could be found about Lee. There was very little information on the gold medalist, but the little that he did find proved to be quite useful.
During his search, Conklin discovered a blog covering boxing in Washington, D.C., called “Boxing Along the Beltway.” One of the boxers the blog covered was Norvel Lee. Conklin found himself scanning through the comments until he got to the bottom, where he found a comment that read “thank you for this article on my grandfather.”
“Immediately I thought, whoa, there’s something,” said Conklin.
Conklin reached out to the commenter, Daryn Anderson, sending her a LinkedIn message that she quickly answered. He notes that he was unsure why he did it – curiosity, and perhaps a potential to write a longer piece or essay on the man. (Conklin had been writing all his life and had published many essays, but never a full-fledged novel.) The two engaged in a series of email and phone exchanges, where Anderson recounted memories of her grandfather, until eventually inviting Conklin and his wife for a visit with the family in Maryland.
It was in the home of Margaret Russell, Norvel Lee’s sister-in-law (the younger sister of his late wife, Leslie Jackson), where the family welcomed Conklin with open arms.
“I think the only concern I saw was when we drove up to the house that first time and they didn’t quite know what they were getting into, which was understandable. But from that moment on, there was no hesitation,” said Conklin. The family pulled out boxes of materials on Norvel that had been collected over the years. There were countless pieces of memorabilia: U.S. Olympic team jackets, medals from his time in the U.S. Air Force, newspaper articles from his boxing days, invitations to D.C. social events. The book began to form before his eyes as he examined all the material.
“There is just no way that an author gets access to all these records like this, and so voluntarily,” Conklin said.
Conklin described his reasoning for looking into Norvel in the first place as simple curiosity, but as his research continued, it became much more meaningful than that. “I’ve always been fascinated with people, and fascinated with people who face obstacles in their lives, and go around them, go through them, and make certain achievements in their lives,” said Conklin. “That’s what drew me to the story in the first place.”
Norvel Lee is certainly a man who overcame obstacles. Growing up in southern Virginia during the Jim Crow era, Lee had to deal with segregation laws and discrimination – most notably, in the events that eventually led him to the Virginia State Supreme Court.
According to Conklin’s research, on Sept.14, 1948, Lee boarded a train on a short trip from Covington to Clifton Forge and sat in the section reserved for white passengers. Lee was immediately asked to move to the section set aside for “colored” travelers, but he refused. Lee was then directed by the Alleghany County sheriff that he either move to the “colored” section or get off the train. Norvel left the train, went to the ticket office and canceled his ticket to Clifton Forge, replacing it with a ticket to Washington. Again, he boarded the train, sitting in the very same seat. Upon his return, Lee was arrested for refusing to sit in segregated seating, as per Virginia law at the time.
The ensuing court case would become a landmark one. Lee ultimately won the case, and the court ruled that state segregation laws did not apply to interstate travelers, which Lee became after purchasing a ticket to Washington.
Born Sept. 22, 1924, near Eagle Rock, Lee grew up attending segregated schools, Conklin learned, eventually graduating from the Academy Hill School for Negroes in Fincastle. After graduating high school, in 1943 Lee was selected for flight training in Tuskegee, Alabama, at the Tuskegee Army Airfield. Due to a speech impediment, he was not assigned a squadron and instead served on a ground crew in the South Pacific toward the end of World War II.
Following the war, Lee attended Howard University, pursuing a degree in engineering, and it was there that he took up intramural boxing.
For an athlete who never went pro, Lee had an accomplished boxing career. He became interested in the sport during his time in the military, and began boxing while attending Howard. Although he had no previous experience in the sport, he quickly excelled, Conklin wrote. So much, in fact, that Howard sponsored him in the U.S. Olympic trials, and he was selected as an alternate for the 1948 U.S. boxing team at the London Olympics.
Between Norvel’s Olympic appearances, he participated in a number of matches at the collegiate and amatuer levels, as well as a number of international competitions including the Duals Meet (an event for amateur boxers in which teams from the U.S. and Europe would compete), and the 1951 Pan American Games.
In 1952, at the Olympics held in Helsinki, Finland, Norvel won four matches to win the gold medal for the light-heavyweight class. He was originally on the team as a heavyweight alternate, but had to shed 15 pounds in the span of two weeks (5 of which he lost in a single day) in order to fill in for an injured teammate in the lower weight class.
Following his Olympic gold, Lee was approached by many to turn pro but declined, Conklin learned, preferring to retire from boxing and pursue a career in education.
Conklin embarked on an extensive research process to write his novel, one that he likes to call a “journey.” He spent a great deal of time talking and meeting with Lee’s family in Upper Marlboro, and he traveled to Washington to visit Lee’s alma mater, Howard University. He spent time in Howard’s archival library, as well as in the Library of Congress, looking through NAACP records for any account of Norvel. Most of his research journey, however, involved a lot of Google searches, which in turn led to potential contacts down the line.
Conklin notes that the most memorable part of his research journey was all the people he met along the way – many of whom he remains friends with to this day. One such person was Lisa Telles, daughter of former boxer John Boutilier, or “Bout” as he is commonly referred to. Bout, along with Norvel, was a member of the U.S. Duals team in 1951 during its European tour. While looking up each of the boxers on this tour, Conklin stumbled upon an obituary for Boutilier. The obituary mentioned Telles, whom Conklin immediately searched for and sent a message to. She wrote back fairly quickly, and they struck up a friendship, culminating in a visit to her home in Southern California, where Conklin is also from. Much like Norvel’s family, Telles had several boxes of material about her father, including material on the tour he participated in with Norvel.
Conklin also befriended Danielle Anderson, one of Lee’s granddaughters.
“He’s very genuine, and his wife as well,” Anderson said. “Outside of the connection with my grandfather, I would say that I would easily spend time with them, unrelated to this. They’re wonderful people.”
Anderson spent a great deal of time communicating with Conklin, both via email and on his numerous visits to Maryland to talk with the family.
“We were happy and excited to have our grandfather’s name brought back up into the public, to get his name and his story out there a little more,” she said.
The family had an idea of Norvel’s place in history prior to Conklin’s novel, she said, “but it was one of those things where he was an unsung hero who didn’t care to be sung about.”
Anderson noted that her grandfather was more concerned with taking care of his family and living his life than being recognized for his accomplishments. “We kind of modeled ourselves after him. Glory and recognition should not be the goal – it should be doing what’s right,” she said.
As for her thoughts on “Norvel,” Anderson said she “loved it.”
“I finished in two days. I started it the night of the book release,” she said. “Knowing it was fictional, he did his best to stay as true to real life as possible.” While the events of Conklin’s novel were based in fact, many of the conversations and smaller details were fictionalized.
“The fiction comes to fill in gaps where we don’t know what he said, but it was nice to have that as a possibility,” Anderson said. “Even if it’s not true, it feels right.”
“Norvel” was self-published, which was not Conklin’s original plan. He began reaching out to agents when the novel was in its final form.
“I got a couple encouraging responses from a few,” said Conklin. “They wanted to see more, wanted to know more and then they kind of went away.”
After several interactions of this nature, Conklin received an invitation from the Botetourt County Historical Society to speak at its Black History Month event in 2020. “I thought, well, I better just launch the book, ’cause it’s a chance to get it in front of an audience,” Conklin said.
The project was entirely self-funded, and while he won’t say just how much it cost, he said he didn’t cut any corners with the expenses.
“I justified the expense by saying some people want to spend their time and money visiting the far edges of our planet. I feel the investment in this project took me on a journey of a lifetime,” said Conklin.
Conklin estimates that “Norvel” has sold close to 1,000 copies across all platforms. Prices range from $6.99 for an ebook to $28.95 for a hardcover.
The response to “Norvel,” especially locally, has been “gratifying and somewhat unexpected,” said Conklin. His book is carried in several bookstores around Virginia, including Book No Further in downtown Roanoke, a store that features many local authors.
“It’s been very well received by different audiences,” said store owner Deloris Vest. “It’s good for people who like sports, who like history. It’s a good biography. It appeals to a variety of people.”
Vest noted that Book No Further likes to carry books that might not get a lot of online attention. Because “Norvel” is self-published, and about a relatively unknown subject, it falls under that category.
“We get a lot of people looking to learn more about Roanoke, and we like to carry stories like this that are important and unique,” said Vest, who noted that people are often surprised and intrigued to learn that Botetourt County even had an Olympian.
The Black History Month book talk Conklin was invited to in February 2020 drew 75 attendees – including Anderson and Telles, who both stayed at his home.
It was meant to be the first of many speaking events scheduled for Conklin to talk about Norvel Lee and introduce the novel. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of these events, including one planned for the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in downtown Roanoke.
The most rewarding response to the book, said Conklin, is the county’s newfound dedication to honoring Norvel Lee. A historical marker honoring Lee has been approved, and a proposal to name U.S. 220 in northern Botetourt County the Norvel LaFallette Ray Lee Memorial Highway wll be put before the Virginia General Assembly. Both were only made possible because Conklin’s book prompted the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors to pass two resolutions.
“I always had it in the back of my head that if the right story came along, I would write something bigger,” Conklin said. “That’s what this was. It’s not what I expected, the story just honestly screamed at me. It’s almost like it picked me up and dragged me along.”