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Former Roanoke Times religion reporter and columnist Cody Lowe remembered for gentle soul, storytelling chops

Former Roanoke Times religion reporter and columnist Cody Lowe remembered for gentle soul, storytelling chops

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It’s not easy to find the words that will ease the pain of grieving loved ones, Cody Lowe wrote in a 1997 Roanoke Times column about the deaths of two young friends.

“Perhaps all we can ever say is that we love you,” Lowe wrote.

Those words may bring his family, friends and former colleagues solace in the coming weeks and months as they mourn Lowe himself.

Lowe, 68, a longtime beloved Roanoke Times reporter, columnist and editor, died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19, his family said.

He was best known for his weekly religion column, The Back Pew, where he covered all aspects of religion and spirituality in a down-to-earth manner. He also was the paper’s religion reporter, writing about weighty topics and controversial figures such as Jerry Falwell, abortion and the fundamentalist shift of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“In a lot of ways, he was kind of the voice for many religious communities in Roanoke, and I think he was very proud of that,” said his daughter Carrie Forbes. “He was so respectful of other people and honoring their stories and their voices.”

During his 30-plus years at The Roanoke Times, Lowe was also a copy editor, the first editor of the newspaper’s Neighbors section and a Roanoke County government reporter, among other positions. No matter his title, his personality endeared him to readers and sources alike. A gentle soul, Lowe was also “a tough reporter at heart,” said Roanoke Times reporter Ralph Berrier Jr.

“He was a real congenial, down-to-earth person that just related really well to ordinary people,” said his wife, Betty Lowe.

Cody Lee Lowe III was born June 1, 1952, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His interest in religion was shaped by his Baptist parents and his time in college, Betty Lowe said.

“He was your typical skeptical news person in terms of faith, but he honored it,” she said. “His parents were very solid Baptists, and he honored and really respected people with religious beliefs, no matter what beliefs they had.”

He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and motion pictures. A lifelong Tar Heels fan, he occasionally mentioned his alma mater in columns and stories.

Though educated in broadcast news, he was baptized in ink. He worked for a small paper in Elizabeth City, North Carolina — the youngest editor of a daily newspaper in North Carolina at that time, his LinkedIn profile proudly notes — before arriving to The Roanoke Times & World-News in 1978 as a copy editor.

He spent the bulk of his career writing about religion, where he felt most at home.

“He was just much beloved and respected among all faiths in the valley,” said author and former Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy.

The breadth and depth of Lowe’s writing was second to none; family and former colleagues all named different pieces that stuck with them over the years, a testament to the impact his stories had on readers.

A profile about the director of the Boys’ Home in Covington “just brought me to my knees,” Macy said. Berrier, himself a Tar Heels fan, remembers a column that equated Tar Heels basketball to religious fanaticism.

And Forbes recalls a 1997 feature about Christmas 1945 in Germany. Lowe wrote about the first post-war Christmas of a World War II veteran who later went on to own the Eagle Rock Funeral Home. The soldiers were stuck in Germany for Christmas, staying with a couple who didn’t have much and didn’t speak English. But come Christmas Day, the couple presented them with a spindly tree and sugar cookies made from saved rations.

Lowe found a multitude of unique stories in Southwest Virginia. He profiled a man who grew up Muslim but later converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; wrote about Soviet Jewish emigres; and reported on visiting Baptists from Slovakia.

Lowe wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable in his columns, either. He penned several columns about personal loss, writing about the deaths of his father, who died while Lowe was in college, and his first daughter.

He also knew how to get a laugh out of his readers. He once wrote about missing UNC’s appearance in the semifinals of the NCAA basketball tournament to attend a Vanilla Ice concert at the behest of Forbes, then a teenager, and her friend. Lowe wrote of the rapper:

He also encouraged the crowd to get on its feet (although that wasn’t really necessary) since “I am proof that white people can dance.”

Funny, but I thought that was Fred Astaire.

Ice then let the crowd — who knew every word by heart — sing his hit “Ice, Ice Baby.”

In fairness to the screaming thousands who stood and shouted the entire two hours Vanilla Ice was on stage, I have to say the only apparent disappointment in the house was seen in the eyes of the occasional parent/chaperone who looked as if she couldn’t get out soon enough. All the younger crowd seemed perfectly well-pleased.

“It was very much worth seeing,” Carrie concluded. “It was very much worth the $17.50 for the tickets,” Angie agreed.

Of course, she didn’t pay for any tickets.

And to top it all off, Carolina lost the game.

Journalists gravitated toward Lowe in the newsroom, knowing they could be themselves around him. Former colleagues describe him as a kind man with an equally sharp sense of humor — “both the moral compass and a lot of fun,” Macy said.

That personality was equally apparent to readers in the Roanoke Valley.

“I would hazard to say, nobody didn’t like Cody,” Macy said. “He was just such a good person.”

Lowe was liberal but raised by religiously conservative parents, and his upbringing played a role in his ability to bring people together, Betty Lowe said.

“He had a great way of bridging people who were both liberal and conservative, and he had a beautiful way of doing that in his writing,” Forbes said.

Cody and Betty Lowe, longtime friends who met working for the newspaper, married in 2010. He retired in 2011, taking a voluntary retirement offer from the paper.

Retirement gave him the opportunity to spend time with his grandson, “the apple of his eye,” whom Lowe helped raise, Forbes said.

Lowe loved food, especially eastern North Carolina barbecue. He would regularly make his family breakfast, and cooked a leg of lamb every Christmas, Forbes said. He enjoyed movies, museums and the beach. He also took an interest in historical weapons and dreamed of setting up a gunsmithing workshop in his basement, but declining health prevented that from happening, Betty Lowe said.

He experienced health problems for many years, receiving a heart transplant in 2013 after heart failure.

He also received dialysis three times a week, which meant that he had to leave his house during the pandemic.

“Once you are out of your little cocoon, you don’t know where you might pick up COVID,” Betty Lowe said. “And he picked it up.”

His family will hold a virtual memorial service at noon Dec. 29 hosted by Christ Episcopal Church. The community can attend visiting the following link: https://tinyurl.com/CodyLoweMemorial.

The Back Pew wasn’t always titled as such. Lowe renamed his column after an editor pointed out early in its run that the original name was too boring: a column named “religion,” on the same page as briefs called “religion,” all on the religion page.

He toyed with several alternatives borne out of a name contest, but found others unsatisfactory for one reason or another. He finally settled on The Back Pew. After all, he wrote, that was similar to his own perspective when visiting a religious congregation.

More than that, though, the center back pew in his own church was generally reserved for “the real cut-ups” — the senior greeter, some teenagers, the minister’s wife.

“It’s the kind of place where a certain amount of irreverence is tolerated, even fostered,” he wrote. “Alternately, it is also a place where some of the most profound questions about religious faith arise and get discussed and debated.

“It is the kind of place where I feel right at home.”

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K-12 Education Reporter

Claire Mitzel covers K-12 education for The Roanoke Times. Contact her at (540) 981-3334 or claire.mitzel@roanoke.com. Follow her on Twitter: @c_mitzel.

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