Marvin Lake, The Virginian-Pilot’s first Black reporter, dies at 80

Marvin Lake was an advocate.

He was an advocate for Virginian-Pilot readers. For reporters. For fairness. For the Black community.

Lake’s death at 80 last week marked the end of a legacy of good journalism and institutional knowledge in Hampton Roads. Lake’s journalism career started while he was in middle school, serving as business manager for the Jacox Journal and later editor of The Clarion, Booker T. Washington’s student newspaper. After graduating from Norfolk State University, Lake served in the public information office producing the base newspaper at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. In 1969, he returned to work at his hometown newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot.

During his time at The Pilot, Lake wore many hats. He began as the paper’s first Black reporter, and over the next 41 years, Lake took on roles as commentary editor, Portsmouth bureau chief and Norfolk city editor. He also directed recruitment of the news department, Landmark Communications’ year-long Minority Training Program, The Pilot’s summer internship program and its Minority Journalism Workshop for high school students. For many Black reporters and other journalists of color, he was a mentor.

Known as a snazzy dresser in the newsroom, Lake had a calm and collected demeanor in an industry famous for chaos.

“He was a man of strength and dignity,” said former Pilot columnist Dave Addis. “His words carried weight, but in 30 years of working with Marvin, I never once heard him raise his voice, and that’s saying something for a newsroom. He was a quiet but firm advocate for the need for The Pilot to advance the careers of minority reporters and editors.”

Roger Chesley, another former Pilot staffer and now a columnist for The Virginia Mercury, worked with Lake from 2000 to 2007 on The Pilot’s editorial desk. For years, Lake served as the paper’s public editor, and in the role, Lake often fielded reader comments and concerns about reporting, and his column focused on fairness and transparency within The Virginian-Pilot.

“A lot of people, especially if you were Black, knew that you could go to him if you didn’t think that the paper was doing something right, or wrote something that you didn’t think was fair,” Chesley said. “You could get a decent airing with him.”

Chesley said when Lake retired in 2007, the paper lost decades of institutional and local knowledge. Lake was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.

“I would go to his office to ask him about something (and) I often could see him there: leaned back in his chair, kind of a wry smile on his face trying to explain to people why this particular story was in the paper, why it might have taken a particular point of view or at least a thrust,” Chesley said. “Sometimes he seemed like he was the patient grandfather trying to explain you might not like what was in (the paper), but this was why it was in. Sometimes he might agree with the caller, but he always seemed to you always seem to be willing to listen, and to give readers a fair airing to what was going on.”

One of his most notable works was a series he developed and edited in 1997 on the history of Church Street in Norfolk. The series documented the long history of the area’s contributions to business, entertainment and culture. The series garnered local and national awards, and he later narrated a subsequent, award-winning PBS documentary on the topic.

In addition to his journalistic work, Lake was heavily involved in community work as well. He was dedicated to mentorship through the Hampton Roads Committee of 200+ Men Inc., where he was chair of the organization’s annual 200+ Scholars Breakfast, which honored Black high school graduates with at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

Instead of flowers, his family has asked that donations be made to Norfolk State University, the Shiloh Baptist Church Legacy Fund or the Alzheimer’s Association.

.Eliza Noe,