By Debbie Adams
Henry J. Brabham IV of Vinton passed away on March 30 at age 90.
“Henry was a great man who accomplished incredible feats throughout his entire life,” said Vinton Mayor Brad Grose. “Henry loved his family and his community, and his energy seemed to be boundless. In addition to serving as a councilman and mayor, Henry made so many contributions to our town that it would be impossible to count them. The impact that Henry made upon the Town of Vinton is beyond measure. We will fondly remember Henry as someone that achieved great things for his community and its citizens. We will miss Henry!”
Brabham was a driving force in the Vinton community and throughout the Roanoke Valley for decades — in business, in government, and in civic organizations, since he moved to Vinton from the Carolinas back in 1963. He had graduated from The Citadel and was a veteran of the Korean War with the Army Combat Engineers. He served as a longtime member of the 51st National Guard Division.
Brabham has been described as a powerhouse entrepreneur who brought a sleepy Vinton to life in the 1970s and ’80s — as owner of many businesses and properties in the area. He was an oilman who established Brabham Petroleum Company and operated numerous Lancer Marts and three truck stops in the Roanoke Valley.
In addition, he was the founder and longtime owner of the Lancerlot Sports Complex, built in 1984 to house the professional Virginia Lancers ice hockey team.
A Vinton Messenger newspaper article at the time stated, “The Lancerlot is more than a major new business that will have an economic impact. It is a focal point for community pride.”
“Nobody would believe we could build something this big in 10 months, but we did,” said Brabham upon completion of the Lancerlot. He originally just wanted a home for the Lancers team and then the plans snowballed beyond all expectations into a sports complex.
Some 34 years later, in 2018, he sold the Lancerlot to the Penalty Box Partners organization allowing ice hockey to return to Vinton once again after major renovations to the facility.
In 2008, Brabham was inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame. Each year the Henry Brabham Cup, named in his honor for his tireless efforts to establish the league, is awarded by the ECHL to the team which finishes with the most points in the league during the regular season.
“There is no question in my mind that without Henry Brabham, there is no ECHL,” ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin said in a statement on Brabham’s passing. “It is a tremendously sad day for the league as we lose one of our founding members, but this is also an opportunity to be thankful for his commitment to the sport of hockey and his willingness to create the foundation for what the ECHL has become.”
Brabham served on Vinton Town Council beginning in 1974 when he was appointed to fill Norman Dowdy’s seat. He was then elected on his own to a four-year term and subsequently appointed mayor when Gus Nicks suddenly passed away, serving until 1980. As mayor, he contributed greatly to the realization of the self-supporting water system for the town. His friend Larry Kilgore says that while “serving on Town Council and as mayor he always had Vinton’s interests at heart.”
There is a recurrent theme when talking with folks in Vinton about Henry Brabham. Those who knew him best often comment on his gruff manner that “hid a heart of gold.”
“Henry meant so much too so many people,” said Vinton realtor and School Board representative Tim Greenway. “A lot of folks may not have known what a gentle soul he really shared with many. He would carry a tough, rough exterior, but he would help anyone asking. I’ve personally seen or heard about it many times, although Henry would never mention anything about the situation he was helping at the time.
“Additionally, Henry was really the main economic driver in Vinton for years as he built the Lancerlot and housed the hockey team for many years,” Greenway added. “Some nights the building would be full, holding 4,000 fans. They would come to the game, buy tickets, refreshments, maybe some gas, or food at establishments around the Lancerlot.”
Brabham was a member of the Vinton Lions Club for 55 years, joining in 1965, serving as president of the club in 1989-90 and in a variety of other positions through the years.
He was selected for the prestigious Lions Melvin Jones Fellowship Award — the highest honor bestowed on a Lion — back in the days when the local club donated $1,000 to Lions International to honor a member. He is also remembered for White Cane fundraisers. He always took the spot in front of the ABC building — one of the many properties he owned — to collect donations.
Kilgore, a fellow Lion, says Henry is most remembered by the Vinton Lions for his work in organizing their annual raffle. They worked together on the Lions’ raffle for 19 years, along with Lion Willie Leffell.
The raffle netted the club thousands of dollars each year (approximately $157,000 over the years) that went to community causes. Proceeds from the raffle benefit the community to this day from an annuity established (in perpetuity) which enables the Vinton Host Lions to provide a scholarship each year for a William Byrd senior, among other causes.
Brabham was a longtime Freemason and member of both the York Rite and the Kazim Shrine Temple. In 2014, he was honored for 60 years in the organization.
Brabham was also a member of the American Legion and of Barnhardt Baptist Church.
There is a room at the Vinton First Aid Crew co-sponsored in Henry’s honor by his wife Sarah and his beloved dog Precious.
Kilgore says Brabham “did a lot of things for people and causes in Vinton that no one ever knew about. If someone needed something, he supported them behind the scenes.”
“Henry really did do so much for so many of us in this town either directly or indirectly!” Greenway said. “Rest in peace, Henry!”