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Remembering Louis Tudor, 'one of a kind'
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Remembering Louis Tudor, 'one of a kind'

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If you were part of a generation of customers who dined on Tricky Nicks and Shannies at Tudor’s Biscuit World, you knew Louis Tudor as the biscuit guy.

If you saw him lapping everybody in the pool, you knew him as a really competitive swimmer. If you swam for one of his teams, you knew him as coach.

Louis Tudor was that and more. A father of four, a husband and a true Roanoke character, well known and well liked.

“He was one of a kind,” said his younger brother, John Tudor.

Louis Tudor was also struggling emotionally in his final months before he died by suicide on Wednesday at the age of 64. He died after a period of declining mental health, his family said, a spiral that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic when social restrictions kept him away from other people, from exercising, from swimming and from other things he loved.

The year “2020 was a perfect storm for him,” said his wife, Jessica Tudor, during a Friday interview that included other members of the Tudor family. He had been seeing a psychiatrist through video conferencing during the pandemic, but as oldest son Nick said of his father, “He wasn’t very tech-savvy.”

Tudor loved being around people, whether it was taking orders behind the counter at Tudor’s Biscuit World or slapping high-fives with young swimmers. A former college swimmer at the University of North Carolina, he enjoyed bragging about his beloved Tar Heels, especially to lines of Virginia Tech and University of Virginia fans.

He opened Tudor’s Biscuit World on Church Avenue in 1985, four years after his father had launched the family franchise in West Virginia. Tudor spent part of his youth in West Virginia before the family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina.

By the time Tudor shut down the restaurant in 2012, Tudor’s was a downtown institution. On its last day of operation, Sept. 14, 2012, the line of customers stretched from the counter in the rear of the cozy restaurant to the front door as people came to say goodbye and savor their last Tudor’s biscuits.

“In a million years, I never expected this,” Tudor told The Roanoke Times that day as he worked behind the counter during the morning rush. “You can’t put a price on the love and support that the downtown community has poured over this place.”

Tudor was a fixture, always looking like the college swimmer he was at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and a nearly fat-free 180 pounds even as he approached his 50s. He once told the newspaper that his training regimen included not only exercise but three Tudor’s biscuits a day — one plain, one sausage, one ham.

“People look at diet as a way to control cholesterol,” Tudor told reporter Doug Doughty in 1996. “I think the biggest problem with society is, we don’t exercise. I think the reason my body fat is low is that I’m active and I haven’t slowed down.’’

Tudor’s Biscuit World was always a family affair, with his four children practically growing up in the restaurant. The family eventually moved into an apartment above the restaurant, which is still the Tudor home.

Oldest daughter Erin remembered playing in the flour and the dough as a toddler. Playpens were set up for the youngest children, as Tudor carried baby Hannah in a backpack while he took customers’ orders. Hannah used to pour cold drinks down his back just to hear him holler, which made the customers laugh.

All four children, two from his first marriage and two with Jessica, had biscuits named after them. The Erbear was named for Erin, son Nick got the Tricky Nick, Hannah inspired the Hannie and Shane the Shannie (pronounced “shane-ee”).

Other biscuits were named for college mascots: the Tar Heel, Wahoo, Hokie and Keydet.

“Dad knew every customer’s favorites,” Nick said. “We’d be downtown and he’d say, ‘See that guy? He gets a Keydet every morning.’ ”

Tudor’s Biscuit World was a low-tech affair, with no computer monitors or digital displays. Tudor repeated customers’ orders into a microphone for the lightning-fast biscuit-makers in the back, then rang up bills on a cash register.

Nick remembered his father’s singular talent for being able to take a delivery order over the phone, write it down and then somehow fling the paper ticket up in the air over his shoulder so that it floated directly through the window to the workers in the kitchen.

Hannah recalled as a child waking up to the booming sound of her father’s voice coming through the loudspeaker downstairs.

“It was coming through the floor like Darth Vader,” she said.

Tudor hastily closed the restaurant in 2012, partly blaming changing food tastes among Roanoke’s diners — but he also admitted to a sort of restlessness to do other things.

That’s when he was hired to help form the City Swim Barracudas, a swim team especially for inner-city children in Roanoke, many of whom were just learning to swim. The perpetually youthful-looking Tudor let his wavy hair grow out, making him look sort of like a surfer dude. He stayed busy as a coach, and he also worked with clients from the Roanoke Rescue Mission, who would use swimming as part of therapy.

“Dad loved digging for the gold in people,” Erin said. “He knew when someone needed a little pep talk or a little inspiration.”

Tudor had vast experience as a volunteer coach, having helped coach the Gators, Marlins and YMCA swim teams, among others.

“His blood was chlorinated,” Jessica said.

Longtime friend and fellow coach Donald Barbour, whom Tudor had coached as a kid in the 1980s, said that Tudor had a “childlike enthusiasm” when it came to coaching youths.

“He’d be the first to give a high-five if a kid got his personal best or he’d be there to console a kid who had lost,” Barbour said. “He knew what to do at the right time.”

All four children swim competitively, with Erin and Shane swimming at the college level.

Austin Criss, a family friend who was coached by Tudor from the time he was 8 years old, called Tudor “a Roanoke legend.”

Criss said Tudor helped him select the University of Wisconsin as the college where he swam a couple of years on the varsity team. Even so, he grew up knowing Tudor as much for his mouth-watering biscuits. After early-morning swim practices at the Gator Aquatic Center, Criss and teammates would go to Tudor’s Biscuit World for breakfast. There, Tudor helped him set up a money-making scheme.

“He’d give me bags of biscuits at a discount and I’d sell them at North Cross for five dollars a biscuit,” Criss said, noting that such a mark-up allowed him to make a little gas money. Nick and Shane also sold biscuits to high school classmates, they said.

Tudor was a natural in the water, and not just when it came to swimming. He loved paddling on rivers and fishing. On beach trips, he would rise early (being in the breakfast business, Tudor regularly awoke at 3:30 a.m. to start his days), and go lobstering or fishing before anybody else was up.

“I would rank fishing ahead of swimming,” Tudor told The Roanoke Times in 2005. “I fish to relax. I’m very competitive, but it doesn’t wear you out. I get a lot of satisfaction out of swimming, but I’ve got to the point in my life where everything has its opportunity cost, and I’d rather take my kids fishing.”

He took to the outdoors like a duck to water, literally. His brother John, two years younger, recalled a day when Louis, 12 years old at the time, walked back to the family’s home in Greensboro from a day of mucking around in creeks and ponds nearby. As he strode in cutoffs and bare feet, young Louis was followed by a duck.

“He was feeding it tadpoles or something,” John recalled. “That duck stayed around for two years. … Louis always wanted to dive through lakes and swamps, and I’d be like, ‘I’m out.’ ”

Both Louis and John swam in college, Louis at UNC and John at East Carolina University. The brothers were competitive, and both could recall race times and splits from years earlier.

In fact, when Louis would see swimmers he had coached in the past, he would remind them what their fastest times had been, his family said.

“He can’t remember anniversaries or birthdays, but he could remember some swimming time from 1978,” Jessica said.

Recently, he had been assisting swimmers at Hunting Hills Country Club, but even that wasn’t enough to improve his mental state, his children and wife said.

Tudor had undergone back and foot surgeries in recent years, and he had cited aches and pains from standing all day as among the reasons for closing the restaurant. He had been on medication for high blood pressure recently. What he perceived as a physical decline seemed to worsen his depression, his family said.

“He had such high standards for himself,” Erin said, “that when he didn’t feel like he could reach those standards, he began to lose sight of himself.”

Being shut away from water and from his former life pre-pandemic only made things worse, Nick said.

“I don’t think he had two good days since March,” Nick said. “But those good days were so good, it gave me hope.”

Hannah, a neonatal intensive care nurse in Denver, said that their father still told his children he loved them.

“People at that level of mental illness often feel abandoned,” Hannah said. “That’s not the case. He knew we were OK and he knew he was loved. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that he was loved. I think he’s at peace.”

Even this winter, his concern for people was obvious, Jessica said. On a cold night a couple of months ago, even as his own mental health was deteriorating, Tudor saw a shivering, homeless man outside the family’s apartment. Tudor grabbed his expensive London Fog coat, went outside and wrapped it around the freezing man.

“I said, ‘Louis, what are you doing? That’s your London Fog coat,’ ” Jessica said. “He said, ‘He needs it.’ ”

A few weeks ago, Jessica saw that same man downtown, still wearing the coat.

Nick, an environmental scientist in Portland, Oregon, said that water will always provide a connection between the children and their father.

“I think we’ll communicate through water,” Nick said. “Rain or waves or pools. That’s how his energy will transpire through me forever.”

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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