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November 19, 2012

Making it to a Milestone

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Roanoke Valley Hokie Club has become the first non-person and first local Hokie Club to contribute $1 million to the Tech athletics program

HokieBirdThe Roanoke Valley Hokie Club has contributed financially to many projects over the years, including the bronze HokieBird that sits in the lobby of Cassell Coliseum.

They also aren’t afraid to invest in their beloved program, paying out of their wallets, and more impressively, with their sweat. In particular, a devoted faction of Hokie fans from Roanoke, Va., has stepped up to the proverbial collection plate.

Thanks to its recent $50,000 contribution to the Virginia Tech Athletic Fund (a.k.a. the Hokie Club) to be used to help pay for the football locker room, the Roanoke Valley Hokie Club became the first non-person and the first Hokie Club to donate more than $1 million to the Tech athletics program. The $50,000 donation boosted the club’s total giving to exactly $1,004,784 over a span of 25 years. The Hokie Club’s records only go back to 1987.

“It’s really pretty amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish,” said Lu Merritt, the senior director of development for intercollegiate athletics. “You think about all the events they’ve put together and all the volunteer hours that go into that. It’s not just about the money with these people. They have a lot of ‘sweat equity’ invested into making our programs better, and they deserved to be applauded for what they’ve done.”

The Roanoke Valley Hokie Club’s contributions have been designated for a wide array of projects related to Tech athletics. Its first contribution in 1987 was for $3,000 and went to “athletic operations,” and then the group spent the next eight years raising money – $50,000 in all – for the Roanoke Valley Hokie Club Endowment, which goes toward its first scholarship.

Since then, they’ve raised money for projects such as the construction of the Merryman Center ($200,000), the south end zone expansion of Lane Stadium ($125,000), the west side expansion of Lane Stadium ($74,000), the new football locker room ($60,000) and the bronze HokieBird that sits in the Cassell Coliseum entranceway ($83,000), just to name a few. A year ago, the club donated $95,000 to be used for the future construction of a new football field house.

“Obviously, it’s a team effort,” said Brian Wilson, the president of the Roanoke Valley Hokie Club. “We have several events each year, and we’ve got a good core of volunteers. We’ve got a group of about 10-15 people who head up things, and then the others fall in line.”

The club’s humble beginnings as a fundraising powerhouse actually began in the late 1980s when a group of people, led by then-club president Renny Lynch, decided to have “Bingo Night” every Sunday night in Salem. A group of 60-75 people volunteered to work the event and formed teams of 10, so that each team worked once a month. They also sold concessions at the event to raise money.

It turned out to be a great idea. Not only did the club raise a lot of money off bingo, but it also provided Tech fans with a social opportunity to talk about Hokie athletics.

“It was really a ‘Hokie huddle’ type of thing,” Lynch said. “We just had a fantastic group of Hokies, and the camaraderie was great. We had a lot of fun, and we had a lot of success with it.

“We made a pledge there at some point in the 1980s to contribute $100,000 to Tech. We thought it would take some time to reach that goal, but we were able to do it in less than a year.”

Lynch guided the club throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s before becoming the president of Virginia Tech Athletic Fund, Inc. He handed off the club president’s duties to Wilson in 2006.

The club discontinued “Bingo Night” years ago and moved on to other fundraisers. Today, under Wilson’s leadership, the club puts on nine events over the course of the year, with its biggest draw being the football kickoff dinner in July. The dinner usually features Tech head coach Frank Beamer and a couple of players, and it gets fans excited about the upcoming season. This past July’s dinner netted $25,000.

The club also puts on a recruiting dinner in February that has become popular, and the club holds a series of lunches each Friday before a home game as well, with Tech AD Jim Weaver and other guests of the athletics program attending, including football coaches. Also, the club puts on a pre-bowl dinner. It sells tickets to all these events and gets sponsors as well.

“Our kickoff dinner is getting bigger and bigger each year,” Wilson said. “We’re getting more people involved, and I think it’s only going to continue to get bigger. I think the ability to raise between $20,000-$30,000 each year off of that is there, and as the economy gets better, I think that’s going to give us more pricing flexibility. We’ve kept our prices the same for a while because of the economy.”

Indeed, that may actually be the most impressive thing about the Roanoke Valley Hokie Club’s milestone. The economic downturn has lasted for the past five or six years now, but the club has raised at least $50,000 in each of those years.

That doesn’t necessarily surprise Wilson, though.

“In one way, it does. But in one way, no, it doesn’t,” he said. “People are passionate about Virginia Tech athletics. They want to be a part of that, and I think our events really bring added value to our members. Those events bring them information about Virginia Tech athletics and make them feel a part of it. They’re getting something tangible for what they’re investing into it.

“I think I’m more surprised with our sponsorships. Those are a tougher sell in a down economy, but we’ve been able to keep all of our sponsors except for one, and we hope to continue to do that.”

The events, though, serve another purpose instead of being simple fundraisers. They bring Tech fans together, creating camaraderie and a passion that manifests itself at Lane Stadium on Saturdays in the fall.

Obviously, the money from every fan and every local Hokie Club helps with the success of the program. And that passion counts just as much. In truth, it’s immeasurable.

“We don’t consider ourselves a fundraising arm,” Wilson said. “Everyone who sends money to Blacksburg is a member [of a local Hokie Club]. We’re set up to get loyal Hokies more information and get them involved. I think our events give them that added value.”

The club plans on continuing its current path, which means, of course, raising more money and creating opportunities for Tech fans to gather. The field house project figures to run in the neighborhood of $20-30 million. Plus, the cost of a scholarship continues to rise, so there are needs to be met – and the club wants to be a part of meeting them.

“Brian’s been a fantastic president, and we’ve got a sound Board of Directors and good officers and good events,” Lynch said. “Everything is going fine. We’ve just got to keep rolling along and keep our ‘huddle’ enthused. We’ve been fortunate, and we’ve got to keep it up.”

The Roanoke Valley Hokie Club may be the first to reach the $1 million milestone, but certainly not the last. Other clubs are approaching the milestone, too, which is great to see.

After all, Frank Beamer has often said we’re all in this together. He didn’t just mean players and coaches. As he, and other Tech coaches, too, astutely know, Hokie Nation plays a large role as well.