The new chairman of Staunton City’s school board made history last month. WMRA’s Mike Tripp has this profile of Kenneth Venable.
KENNETH VENABLE: My name is Kenneth Venable. I am the new chairman of the school board in Staunton, Virginia. The first African-American selected to that position.
The board selected Venable to serve as chair in July with Amy Wratchford as vice-chair, both first elected to the board in 2018.
AMY WRATCHFORD: Ken Venable is a man of honor, a man of integrity, a man of intelligence and a man who is not afraid to share his experiences in ways that help everyone in the room do better. He really takes the time to understand the nuances of the issues. He comes to the table with all of his history and experience. And having that perspective at the table is just invaluable.
Hard lessons early on can help change the course of our lives. Venable, born and raised in Staunton, remembers one of those first lessons.
VENABLE: One of the key moments of my life is when I was in the third grade, and my teacher was Miss Alice Mills. Very stern teacher, very attentive to her students … almost like a mother. I thought I was gonna graduate and go to the fourth grade, but she called about six of us young boys into her class and said, “All six of ya’ll will have to go to summer school.” And she said that we were half-stepping. And she said it was her duty to make sure she got the best out of every student. So we had to go to summer school at her house for six weeks. That always stuck with me because I made sure in my mind that I would never half-step again.
After growing up, Venable says he thanked her for teaching him that lesson.
VENABLE: All that has happened to me in life was because I stayed the course and I worked hard. And she always said, “Nobody gives you nothing. You earn what you get. And if you earn what you get, you are more proud of when you make achievements.”
Venable was part of the last graduating class of seniors at Staunton’s all Black Booker T. Washington High School in 1965. The next year, schools were integrated and the high school closed for good. For college, he headed to Kentucky State University, a historically Black institution in Frankfort.
VENABLE: It was just like family. And it was the best move I ever made because the classes were small but the teachers were … I wouldn’t say ruthless. I mean, they were on your back because they pushed you and pushed you, but also they told you a lot about life.
After a stint in the Air Force, Venable entered the corporate world with a job at General Electric beginning in 1974. Then, in 1987…
VENABLE: I called him Baby Brother. He was terminally ill.
With youngest brother Donald’s days limited, Kenneth wanted to live closer. So, he approached his manager --- a manager who, he says, never seemed to like him.
VENABLE: Day one he said, ‘If I can fire your butt, I’ll find a way to fire you.’ When I told him I’d like to transfer, he said, ‘I can’t let you go because you are one of my top performers.’ And he really hurt me when he said, ‘You’re gonna leave all this opportunity to go with your brother that might live a year.’ And I just told him, I said … ‘Family means more to me than a job.’ I said, ‘I can get another job.’ So I gave my 30 day notice, and drove to California to be with my brother.
That’s when his mother sat him down.
VENABLE: And she said, ‘Son, I want to tell you something. You’re gonna witness something in life that you have never witnessed before and you will never be the same. You’re gonna experience watching a person die. And watching your brother die. But I think you can handle it.’
Donald died a year later.
VENABLE: But I was with him all the way up to the end. I learned a lot about life and how God works.
MICHAEL TURNER: He’s a go getter. Very proud of him.
Meet the Rev. Michael Turner, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Staunton where the Venable family are members.
TURNER: He’s the type person that starts a project and sees it to completion. Has a marvelous gift of gab. Can sell ice to an Eskimo. Dreams big and sees the dreams to fruition.
VENABLE: Rev. Turner is a family pastor. And that means a lot.
They both share a sense that though progress has been made, other things have been lost.
TURNER: The sense of community. The sense of family. A sense of pride. And I think that we’ve lost that. And a sense of working toward a common goal of justice and equality for the whole community.
VENABLE: And now serving on the school board as chair, and I just feel blessed. It’s an honor to do that, but also you have to really make a difference. And when you look at the Staunton school system, student population is 39% non-white. Out of 254 teachers, you only have 15 that are non-white. Understanding how children learn and understanding how minorities learn, if they can see more people that look like them, they can increase their grade points and GPAs by 30 percent.
One of the things Venable, the board and school officials have worked hard on -- a newly renovated Staunton High School. It was due to open this month, but now that all classes in Staunton will be online this fall due to the pandemic, students will have to wait a bit to enjoy it.
VENABLE: And the biggest thing is, we’re dealing with something nobody’s dealt with before. So you have to take each day and each week cautiously and letting people say, ‘It could be subject to change.’