Say, how’d a smart guy like you end up in a place like this?
When colleagues from his days as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill see Lewis Roland shuttling people to and from work after a career in academia, some give him a weird look, possibly question the university’s retirement plan and ask the question posited above.
Roland, 76, retired in 1984 or 1985 – he can’t remember which because he’s been doing so much living since then – as assistant chair of maternal and child health in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
From that lofty height, he’s now driving people to work after they drop off their automobiles at Johnson Lexus in Durham, and going back and getting them when their vehicles are ready. Does he see many of his former colleagues I asked when we met recently for brunch at a Durham restaurant.
“All the time,” he said. Some seem surprised to see him, he said.
Do their double-takes bother him? I asked.
“Naw, naw, naw,” he said. “There’s nothing hierarchical about this. I grew up in a small town. … My daddy owned a poolroom on Sugar Hill in Kinston. It’s just what I do.”
The reason it’s just what he does would be as shocking as the fact that a retired assistant university department head now earns money shuttling people to and fro. It would be shocking, that is, if he talked about it – which he does only with a lot of prompting. I mean a lot of prompting.
A buddy who also works as a driver first told me about Roland, who uses the money he earns at the car dealership to support a family in Chapel Hill. The family is not his, but one he met through the Orange County court system.
“I knew somebody there who knew this family that was in distress,” he said. “It’s really proprietary, and I don’t know if I should be talking about it.”
He parted – reluctantly – with a little information when pressed on how the lives of that distressed family became entwined with his: he’s been doing it for a couple of years, and the family includes four girls, ages 6 to 12.
“It might create an issue with them” to tell too much, he said. “The mother is prison-bound, and they’re being taken care of by their grandmother.”
I kept waiting for him to further explain this compelling story, but he instead resumed sipping his coffee, and I dived back into the world’s largest cream-filled, cinnamon pancake. OK, two cream-filled, cinnamon pancakes.
I found a clue to Roland’s altruism in an interview he did after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007.
“Having cancer has changed me,” Roland said in an interview for the UNC School of Medicine, where he was treated. “It has made me a lot more positive, more benevolent toward others.”
After Roland retired from UNC, I asked, why didn’t he just lounge around the crib or hang out on the golf course, the latter being a cherished activity?
“Because I have a wife who’s just relentless,” he said. “She just retired and just finished writing a book” on her experiences at N.C. Central University. Eleanor Joyce Roland was dean of the School of Nursing at NCCU when she retired and also was on the UNC faculty. “She does so much that I don’t even know what she’s doing.”
The couple met as students at Winston-Salem State University 54 years ago, he said, and have been together since then. They have three daughters, two of whom graduated from Duke University and one from N.C. A&T State University.
Roland is a serial entrepreneur who knows how to spot an opportunity. Soon after retiring, he turned his bicycling hobby into a delivery service around Chapel Hill. When companies, including Duke University and several in RTP, wanted him to deliver medical supplies and such farther than his bike-riding capabilities, he began driving and started a delivery service.
When he disbanded it, he said, Roland & Associates Transport Services leased 100 trucks.
Dude’s also a model, portraying in several advertisements a prosperous older gentleman enjoying life. It’s typecasting. You may have seen him with his eye-catching gray beard in one such television ad, swinging a golf club and touting North Carolina tourism.
“They’d been trying to get me to do an ad for years, but I wasn’t interested,” he said. “One day, the guy said, ‘Bring your clubs out to Raleigh Country Club.’ … They tricked me into doing it. They said, ‘We want you to hit this ball,’ and when I hit it, they were filming.”
After more than an hour with Roland, I learned he loves talking about starting businesses, playing golf and shooting pool: He said he pushes a mean stick.
I also learned that the one thing he doesn’t like to talk about is what he is doing for a distressed family.
It is, as he said, just what he does.