Lu Merritt bidding Hokie Club adieu

BLACKSBURG — When Lu Merritt drives past Lane Stadium, he feels pride.

Merritt, who is retiring at the end of the month, led athletic fundraising at Virginia Tech for 21 years. As Tech’s senior director of athletic development, the Roanoke native worked to land donations for scholarships and capital projects — including the south end zone and west side expansions of the football stadium.

“The other night, I turned on to Southgate [Drive] and you look up at that stadium,” Merritt said at his Lane Stadium office. “Every time I see that, I say, ‘We had a little bit to do with that.’ Kind of fun.”

Merritt, who turns 70 next week, worked as a bank executive before his 1994 hiring to run the Hokie Club and woo donors.

“People were saying, ‘I used to come in to see you, asking for loans. And now, you’re coming to see me, asking for [financial] gifts,’” he said with a grin.

He developed skills in banking that remained valuable the last 21 years.

“The people that have money, they’re smart and they’re shrewd. … So they’re not just going to give it away,” Merritt said. “They value the good relationship with whoever’s calling on them.”

Vietnam War veteran

Merritt, whose family moved from the city of Roanoke to Roanoke County when he was a teenager, played football for Cave Spring High School and tennis for Virginia Tech.

He graduated from Tech in 1968. With the prospect of being drafted looming, he enrolled in the U.S. Army. His two years in the service included a tour in Vietnam from June 1969 to August 1970.

He was part of an artillery unit.

“We were right in the middle of a bunch of stuff,” Merritt said. “I came back with all my limbs, … but some other guys weren’t as fortunate.

“I’m glad I did it. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

After he returned to Roanoke, he got a job at what was then First National Exchange Bank, which later became Dominion Bank. He was sent to Blacksburg in 1984 to be the president of the city’s Dominion Bank branch.

Dominion was acquired by First Union National Bank in 1992. In 1994, one day before learning that First Union was eliminating his job, Merritt applied to become Tech’s athletic development director.

Merritt had volunteered as a Hokie Club representative in Blacksburg, recruiting members, and he figured he had the skills to run the Hokie Club.

He was right.

Big impact

The Hokie Club has raised more than $358 million during Merritt’s watch.

“Lu certainly spends time with people that make big gifts, but he’s also very kind and treats anybody, no matter the level of their gift, the same way,” said Tech athletic director Whit Babcock.

The Hokie Club, which is annually in charge of selling Lane Stadium suites and club seats, raised $15 million for the Lane south end zone addition; $15 million for the Lane west-side expansion; and $11.1 million for the basketball practice facility. They needed to raise even more for the football team’s new indoor practice facility — $20.2 million — because there was no debt service for that project.

“I really enjoyed getting to know the people, getting to know their families,” Merritt said of his fundraising work.

Merritt had a portfolio of about 175 major donors that he was responsible for courting.

He says that he would meet with people as many as six times before asking for money.

“He became friends first before anything was ever asked of you,” said former Virginia Tech Board of Visitors Rector John Lawson, who has been a donor on several capital projects.

Merritt and his staff were responsible for funding the athletics scholarship bill. The 2014-15 scholarship budget was $12.2 million.

“We’re going to be able to pay the bill this year, but if it keeps going up … we’ve got to find more members and incentivize our donors to give a little bit more,” Merritt said.

The organization raised $3 million and had 7,670 members in the 1993-94 fiscal year, when Merritt came aboard for the final two months.

Merritt said the Hokie Club, now 10,000 strong, is on track to raise $20 million during the current fiscal year, which ends in two weeks.

The rise of football coach Frank Beamer’s program helped the Hokie Club’s bank account grow.

“When you’re winning, it’s probably easier to raise money,” Merritt said. “The Michael Vick Sugar Bowl year [the 1999-2000 fiscal year], we were raising more money than we needed because people got excited.”

Reseating Lane Stadium also helped.

When Tech reassigned the seats in 2005, Hokie Club revenue rose to $24 million in that fiscal year, because members increased their donations in hopes of getting better seats.

When the seats were reassigned again in 2012, they raised $27.6 million.

But the club’s revenue is not as robust as it was three years ago.

“The last three or four years [with] football, when their record dipped down a little bit, we saw [donations] decline,” Merritt said. “But we stayed in the $20-22 million range.”

Membership is also not as strong as it once was. The Hokie Club had more than 11,000 members 10 years ago.

But Babcock said the Hokie Club is “bouncing back and headed in the right direction.”

Babcock has known Merritt since the future Tech AD was an Auburn fundraiser in the late 1990s. Babcock visited Tech to learn how the Hokie Club worked.

“Lu was very gracious with his time and was a mentor to me and really helped me,” Babcock said. “He’s helped a lot of people.”

Earlier this week, Merritt received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Athletic Development Directors.

Tech is creating an endowed scholarship in his name.

Merritt, who will continue to live in Blacksburg, said he has planned for a few years to retire at age 70.

“This is a young man’s business,” he said. “There’s no 40-hour weeks in what we do.”


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