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General Via’s Success Inspires Next Generation

Dennis L. Via isn’t exactly a man short on words. Sitting inside a hotel situated less than a mile from the Pentagon, the four-star general seems to relish in the opportunity to share his story.

Indeed, his is a story of triumph and perseverance. It’s a journey that took this working-class young Black man from Martinsville, Va., to a historically Black university where he would eventually decide to enlist in the U.S. Army and go on to carve out a distinguished career.

Decades later, he is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in U.S. military history.

But for Via, he learned the importance of discipline and values long before he became a soldier.

Now, he travels the country sharing his experiences with youth, hoping to inspire the next generation to commit themselves to a life of public service.

Tight-knit community

Born in 1958, Via was among the first group of Black students who would integrate his eighth-grade class in a community known for its bustling textile mills and furniture companies.

“It was a close-knit community,” Via recalls. “It was a very thriving community when I was growing up. All of my teachers knew my parents and my parents knew all of my teachers. Those were the days when you were watched very closely and you couldn’t afford not to do well in school. Not only would your report card reflect it, but your parents would get a phone call.”

His mother was a housewife and his father was a house painter and small-contract repairman who worked around the clock to care for his wife, Via and his younger brother.

“We always said he could do anything,” Via recalls with a broad smile. “My father had a fifth-grade education, but we always said he had a Ph.D. in common sense.”

Though Via was a hard-working student who had perfect attendance all 12 years of his schooling, he envisioned owning his own construction company. He had not given much thought to going to college until he was queried one day by his brick masonry teacher, Edward Fontaine.

“He said, ‘Dennis, you don’t want to go to college?’” remembers Via, who told Fontaine that he hadn’t taken the necessary prerequisite college courses in order to gain admission.

Besides, his family—who lived on modest means—couldn’t afford to foot the bill for tuition and room and board.

But Fontaine was persistent.

“He said, ‘No, I think you should go to college. You are a leader,’” Via remembers. “It was the first time I ever heard of that word, ‘leader.’”

Fontaine, a Korean War veteran who had graduated from Virginia State University (VSU), worked with guidance counselors and VSU college officials to secure Via’s admission at the HBCU founded in the late 1800s.

“He had not done that just for me,” Via says. “I had learned later that he had done that for many kids. He even went by their homes and picked them up and drove them to the bus station because they didn’t have the confidence to go.”

Via’s father borrowed his uncle’s car and the family made the trek to Petersburg, Va., where he would initially enroll as a probationary student on a Basic Education Opportunity Grant, the precursor to the Pell Grant, which is awarded to financially needy students.

After his first semester, Via not only aced all of his classes, but his professors were awed by his exceptional academic skills and his good home training. The news that he was no longer on probation came as a welcome relief for him.

During spring and summer breaks, Via would return home to work alongside his father painting homes throughout the community.

“I remember that I got a little bit full of myself,” he recalls. “I’m a college student and here I am painting this house instead of vacationing or traveling around the country.”

Back to basics

While traveling back to VSU by bus on a Sunday evening, he received a call from his aunt informing him that his father had died as a result of a sudden heart attack. He was only 60 years old.

“That changed my life. I really hadn’t had the man-to-man relationship with my father. He always worked very hard,” says Via, reflecting on what he calls the first major adversity of his life. “He was always pretty much gone during the day. We’d see him in the evening and on Sunday for church. He worked on Saturday.

“When we were with him, we were working. But he was a wonderful man. He taught me so many values about life. I remember asking him, ‘Dad why don’t you advertise your business?’ He would say, ‘My work is my advertisement. I don’t need to advertise. And my word is my bond. When I tell people I’m going to do something, they know that I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it well.’”

Via and his younger brother—who would follow him to VSU and would later have a distinguished career in the FBI—scraped together the funds to pay for their father’s funeral.

But as soon as the funeral was over, the young Via men started to strategize over how they could finish painting the home that their father did not finish.

The homeowner resisted their offer to complete the job, but they were insistent.

“No, sir. My dad started this and I know he would want us to finish it,” Via remembers telling the man. Soon, the brothers’ work caught the attention of neighbors, and “before we knew it, we had more work than we can handle.”

Though Via supplemented his education with painting homes over the summer, something happened during the end of his sophomore year that would forever change his career trajectory.

While walking through the student union at VSU, he spotted two men neatly dressed in military regalia.

“I remember thinking, ‘They look very distinguished,’” recalls Via, who buttonholed the men about their occupations in the Army.

They, in turn, asked Via if he had plans for the summer and offered the opportunity to fly him to a six-week boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., where he would receive a stipend of about $600.

The offer seemed too good to be true for Via, who had never been on a plane and who had spent very little time outside his hometown.

“I went back to my fraternity brothers, Kappa Alpha Psi, and said, ‘They’ve got a great deal going on in the student union building and you need to get over there because it’s going to run out,’ he says with a laugh. ‘They got some camp down in Kentucky and they’re going to give you $600 and an airline ticket.’ I just signed up.”

About eight of his fraternity brothers followed suit and a few weeks later they were all standing before a drill sergeant at a basic ROTC camp.

“I loved the physical challenge. I loved the discipline part of it. I loved being in the leadership part of it. I just loved all of it,” he recalls of his first military experience, adding that he initially turned down a scholarship from the Army because it required that he become active duty.

During his junior year, Via attended a camp at Fort Bragg and won another scholarship. He turned that down, too, but later spent his obligatory three-year stint out of college at Fort Bragg. There he fell in love with the operation.

After he married Linda, his college sweetheart, he decided on another tour. This time it took him to Naples, Italy, where his career soared.

“Of course, after that, I just didn’t find a reason to get out,” he says. “There were opportunities. I thought about it, but I enjoyed every assignment. Here we are in Italy, a place I had only read about in the history books, and we can go to Rome, Pisa and we were working with these NATO countries and we were able to travel.”

Like many of his uncles who fought in World War II, Via had become a proud military man and was determined to encourage others to give the armed forces a close look.

“The Army takes care of its own,” says Via, who oversees the U.S. Army Material Command (AMC), the primary provider of material to the U.S. Army.

“The Army provided opportunities all along the way. I never sought the next position, never sought the next job.”

ROTC-based beginning

Headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, located near Huntsville, Ala., Via has more than 140,000 employees—most of whom are civilians—under his command.

He’s also making inroads by traveling the nation encouraging support for junior ROTC programs. His wife of 32 years actively volunteers and tutors in schools as well.

“We need to reach the youth in middle school,” says Via, who added that junior ROTC programs help youth develop pride “in being responsible, wearing a uniform, learning about discipline and leadership.”

Given the rising number of single-headed households and the challenges facing young Black and brown boys, Via says that evidence suggests that junior ROTC programs dramatically alter a young person’s life even if they opt not to join an ROTC program in college or enlist in the military.

“They will be a better student, hands down,” says Via. “Schools with a junior ROTC program have a higher percentage of graduations. It gives them a structured foundation that otherwise is not present.”

It’s that kind of foundation that Via encountered at VSU that inspired him to be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. At the 125th Founder’s Day, Via returned to VSU to deliver a speech, thanking his former professors who helped him to progress through college.

“All roads for me lead to Virginia State University,” says Via. “The university provided me not only an education in terms of learning, but it provided me with an education for life [and helped me to learn] how to be a better citizen.

We have to be careful not to let these colleges go away. I just think these universities have been significantly important to our country,” says Via, who went on to earn a master’s degree from Boston University.

He says that the military can do a better job in educating the public about its role. “We’ve got to let them know what we do as an Army,” says Via. “The World War II generation is passing away,” adding that he has launched an ambitious effort to hire 1,000 interns each year for the next five years and expose them to opportunities that exist to serve.

For Via, who has two sons, the nomination to four-star general by President Obama in 2012 was the fulfillment of a lifelong goal to make his family and community proud.

“The longer I serve, I’m enormously humble,” he says. “I know I did not get here on my own. I know that without the good blessings of the Lord above and strong support of my family, I would not be here today.”

With each promotion across the years, Via always wrote to Fontaine—his high school teacher—to share the good news. But after he was nominated to become a four-star general, he decided to give his longtime mentor a call.

“You made it. You’re going to be a four-star general,” Via recalls Fontaine telling him. “I said, ‘Sir, how do you know?’” Via smiles, as he recounts the story. “He said, ‘I googled it.’”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at jwatson1@diverseeducation.com.

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