A large crowd had gathered long before a 6:05 a.m. sunrise Sunday at the Hunting Hills Country Club pool.
Swimmers and their families from near and far were on hand to honor the memory of Louis Tudor, who had died by suicide four days earlier.
“There’s only one person who could get that many people up there that early,” fellow masters swimmer James Farmer said this week, “and that would be Louis.”
The proceedings started with an invocation from David Olson, the associate rector at St. John’s Episcopal, where Tudor, 64, helped officiate 8 a.m. Sunday services for 30 years.
Pool manager Duke Edsall was the first of a half-dozen speakers to address a crowd of at least 300 and was joined by Tudor’s younger brother, John.
The most touching moment came when John Tudor and each of his brother’s four children — Erin, Nick, Shane and Hannah — simultaneously swam a 100-meter freestyle.
When they were done, there were biscuits available for everyone in attendance, courtesy of the Scratch Biscuit Company on Memorial Avenue.
Clearly that was done in honor of Louis Tudor, who moved to Roanoke in 1985 to open the downtown location of Tudor’s Biscuit World, a family-owned franchise, with most of its locations in West Virginia.
The family later settled in the Greensboro area in North Carolina, and Louis went to the University of North Carolina, where he earned a swimming scholarship by his senior year.
It wasn’t till he turned 40 and joined the masters swimming ranks that he reached his peak, posting top four times in four events at the YMCA National Masters meet.
Although he continued to swim competitively into his 60s, Tudor seemed to gain his greatest satisfaction in prolonging the careers of other adult swimmers.
“He was such an ambassador to the sport,” said Doug Shanks, a college swimmer at UNC Wilmington before settling in Roanoke. “He welcomed people who swam in college like me. He welcomed people that were doing triathlons. Some people just wanted to get in shape.
“It wasn’t like he was just targeting former swimmers that wanted to compete. He wrapped his arms around everybody.”
Tudor had numerous aches and pains and occasionally turned to Farmer, an orthopedic surgeon, for explanations and instructions.
“When I first saw Louis [swim] in person, I watched him in awe like everyone else to see how fast he was,” Farmer said. “What I noticed most was, Louis Tudor was the consummate competitor.
“When he had his cap and goggles on, you wouldn’t talk to Louis. Louis was in the zone.”
Tudor’s skills were on display every year at the Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association championship, an event that was canceled this year — as were six Monday night meets for all teams — as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
As winter turned to spring, Tudor became increasingly uptight and paranoid about money and other issues.
“I’m certain that he had mental illness that was fairly well-compensated for most of his life,” Farmer said. “We see people and say, ‘This person is really driven,’ and that may be. But it also may be a sign of something. He told me six weeks ago, ‘Yeah, I think I’ve been bipolar my whole life.’ ”
As time went on, their texts got shorter and shorter and their last phone call had ended rather abruptly.
“The community has lost a very selfless person who would give you the shirt off his back if he was wearing one,” Farmer said. “You don’t realize you have something till it’s gone. I haven’t been this sad since my mom passed away 10 years ago.
“His brain malfunctioned and, just like a heart attack, it killed him. I used to view suicide as the most selfish thing you could do. I have so much empathy now because I knew Louis Tudor and he wasn’t selfish at all.”
In recent weeks, Tudor had the chance to express his thoughts to Edsall, who often found Tudor in the vicinity when he unlocked the gates at 5 a.m.
“I had no idea how many people would show up [for Sunday’s tribute] because of his impact in the community,” Edsall said. “I was impressed, but he knew everybody. You know how he was. Nobody was a stranger to him.”
In recent weeks, things had been different. The last time they spoke was June 28, two days before Tudor died. He had swum a few laps in his favorite lane, No. 8, and was sunning himself.
“He looked at peace with himself; he looked like Louis,” Edsall said. “Jess [Tudor] and I had been in contact. She texted me one morning and said, ‘Louis is on his way to the pool. Tell me what you think when he gets there.’
“He swam and we had our conversation and I texted her and said, ‘He looks pretty good today.’ ”
There was little progress after that, although Edsall distinctly remembers Tudor saying he wasn’t about to kill himself and had told his wife the same thing.
“It was just such drastic changes so fast,” said Jessica Tudor, who said she is now pondering an autopsy.
“There was no [previous] history of depression, so we feel it’s necessary. We need this for closure.”
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