T.A. Carter Jr. was a quietly generous man.
Longtime business associate Sandy Ferris still remembers the time he left a $100 tip for a waitress on a small lunch tab. They later learned the waitress was a college student, struggling to put together the money she needed for school. It turned out she was short just $100.
“That was T.A.,” Ferris said. “He did stuff like that.”
Amber Mason, Carter’s granddaughter, said he paid for his four children and three grandchildren to attend college and also provided financial support for the education of countless nieces, nephews and family friends.
When a tenant in a shopping center of Carter’s in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands struggled to keep his business afloat following a devastating hurricane, Mason said her grandfather gave the man a break. When he’d paid his debt, Carter took him to dinner to celebrate.
Family and friends describe Carter, developer of such projects as Crossroads and Tanglewood malls, as a humble man not keen to be in the limelight. Still, he left his mark on the Roanoke Valley through various commercial and residential projects. Carter, 93, died Sunday.
Carter was a graduate of Roanoke’s Jefferson High School and received a degree in architecture from Virginia Tech following his service in the U.S. Navy in World War II. Mason said Carter didn’t talk much about being a veteran. Since he was stationed in the United States and didn’t see any action, Mason said, her grandfather felt it appropriate to leave the glory to men who had put their lives on the line.
Crossroads, which opened in 1961, was heralded as the first enclosed shopping mall in Virginia. Mason called it a “revolutionary concept” at the time. Carter partnered on that project and on Tanglewood Mall with T.D. Steele through their Double T Corporation.
But Carter’s work extended beyond shopping malls. He worked with Gordon Willis on Hunting Hills Country Club, brought Marriott to the region as a franchise owner and renovated the Colonial Arms building in downtown Roanoke. Carter also built homes, condos and apartments.
As a broker for Keller Williams, Mason said she’ll occasionally drive through a neighborhood and see a home that reminds her of Carter.
“Huh, that looks like something Granddaddy would design,” she thinks to herself.
Every once in a while she will consult a master list of his projects and learn she was right.
Ferris worked for Carter for several decades. He was a good boss — if you did your job well, he rewarded you for it. If employees wanted to visit St. John, she said, Carter would let them stay at his house. When he sold his Marriott hotels, Ferris said he shared the profits with employees. She and her kids swam for free at one of Carter’s developments that had a swimming pool.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Ferris said of her time working with Carter.
Carter was devoted to his family. He and wife, Jeanette, raised their children in Salem; Mason said they bought an older home and renovated it with the same contractors used on Crossroads Mall, since both projects were done around the same time. When she was 10, Mason moved in with her grandparents. Their home was the backdrop to all major family events. At Christmas, the house would “just be vibrating,” she said.
When Carter and his wife moved to Brandon Oaks, the house was put on the market. Mason was living in Atlanta at the time but eventually bought it and returned home to Salem, a decision that pleased her grandfather.
“When we decided to move back here, the twinkle in his eyes was incredible,” she said. “He was so proud that I would want it. And he knew that I would take care of it and that I would share it with the family.”
Carter had a soft spot for Mason, his first-born grandchild. As a baby, Mason’s mother, Sidney, served her homemade food — nothing processed and certainly no sugar. Once, she found the little girl sitting on her grandfather’s lap with chocolate smeared all over her face and a bowl of ice cream nearby.
But when challenged about it, Carter didn’t back down.
“He looked at her and said, ‘Sid, shut up. She’s going to be the first president of the United States. She can have whatever she likes and she likes this,’” Mason said the story goes.
Carter also had a passion for photography. He loved documenting the family — Mason said she was photographed so often she would have been well-prepared for a career as a model — but also travel and landscape photography.
He collected art, often championing local creatives. Mason said her grandfather always told her a piece’s value was based on what it made the viewer feel.
“If you like it, then it’s priceless,” Mason said he told her.
Family friend Alexander Boone, who is also president of a local custom home builder, said many developers have one or maybe two specialties. But Carter’s reach was broad, including commercial, residential and hospitality projects.
“He truly changed the landscape of the Roanoke Valley in every aspect of real estate,” Boone said.
Carter’s shopping mall projects show he was a visionary who helped change regional shopping patterns.
“Those were huge risks at the time,” Boone said. “It’s interesting that indoor shopping malls are really a thing of the past and are fading now. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that was as cutting-edge as you had in retail real estate development.”
Boone’s parents were close with Carter and his wife. They, too, were in real estate development, and Boone said his parents counted Carter as not only a friend, but a mentor. Carter encouraged them to take risks and grow their business.
It was always a treat to go to the Carter house, Boone said, because he could count on learning something new. There were countless photographs on the walls and stories to be told about Carter’s travels and work in St. John.
Bob Rotanz, co-owner of Mac and Bob’s Restaurant in Salem, said Carter was a mentor off of whom he often bounced ideas. Rotanz described Carter as sharp, compassionate and unassuming.
“I was a little guy that had a little small restaurant, but I was working hard, working a lot of hours,” Rotanz said. “He took a liking to me because I would ask him questions about business and get his advice on a lot of things.”
But Carter did more than offer words of wisdom. Rotanz said Carter once cosigned a loan that allowed him to expand the restaurant. Without Carter’s support, the project would not have been possible.
“He really wanted people to succeed,” Rotanz said. “If you were willing to work, he had your back.”
When Carter visited Mac and Bob’s over the years and saw a packed restaurant, he always told Rotanz he was happy to see him doing so well. You could tell, Rotanz said, that he really meant it.