Roanoke man spans decades as first to cross new Franklin Road bridge, again

Luke Waldrop was 14 years old when the original bridge opened, now nearly 96

ROANOKE, Va. – Friday will mark a new day in Roanoke's history when the city cuts the ribbon on the new Franklin Road bridge, but Thursday, they made a different kind of history in a way you only could in the Star City.

If you've looked at Google Maps in the last two years, you've seen the red dots and circles showing that the road is closed. It also says "reopening March 22" in the fine print, which is a day many people have been looking forward to. Most of us are only able to imagine what the night before the opening was like in the 1930s when the original bridge was built as a New Deal project, but not Luke Waldrop. He knows what it felt like because he lived it.

Sitting in the passenger seat of a car with a trademark bowtie and suit Thursday afternoon was Waldrop. He was about to embark an a momentous ride, but before he could do that, he had to deal with the number of reporters who showed up for his big moment. He said the anxiousness he felt in the moments waiting to go were like deja vu.

"It brings back a whole lot of memories of sitting here waiting on them to open the gates so we could go through all those years ago," Waldrop said.

This time, there's no gate across the bridge, but he's still front of the line. The nearly 96-year-old is the first to cross the replacement Franklin Road bridge. He rode shotgun Thursday, just like he did when he was 14 years old with his mom at the wheel. They were the first to cross the then-new Franklin Road bridge 80 years ago.

We asked him if 14-year-old him would ever think he'd be doing this again. He laughed at us and then said that's our answer.

As he rode across the bridge, family members said he should wave for the cameras. Waldrop, however, countered their suggestion.

"Let me do it with my feet," he said while jokingly moving his legs toward the window. 

Humor clearly outlasts a concrete bridge. All in all, more than five years of planning, then construction, went into making this moment happen.

"We took a lot of pride in it. We felt it's a great asset for the citizens of Roanoke," Roanoke City Engineer Luke Pugh said.

As Waldrop and his family made it across the bridge, he commented on the attention to detail and artwork. When asked about what he remembered from the first time going across, he said he wasn't paying as much attention to the bridge as he was to the pretty girls along the way.

"I was a youngster with short trousers on and that kind of thing. Now I've gotten a few gray hairs, and I'm looking better than I ever did, so it's really enjoyable and just as favorable as it was the first time," Waldrop said.

It's not every day you get to be No. 1, but with family by your side and a lifetime to show for it, sometimes the second time around is better than the first.

Friday is the big day for the city and the ribbon-cutting is set for 11:30 a.m. The project was a massive one, and because of that, it ran two months late. For that reason, it's safe to say even the thousandth person to cross the bridge Friday will probably be just as excited as Waldrop was being No. 1.

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