Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Man of Honor: Four-Star Gen. Dennis L. Via Has Become One of the Highest-Ranking Africa-Americans in U.S. Military History, Using His Story to Inspire the Next Generation

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Man of Honor: Four-Star Gen. Dennis L. Via Has Become One of the Highest-Ranking Africa-Americans in U.S. Military History, Using His Story to Inspire the Next Generation

Article excerpt

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, Virginia, 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."

Gen. Dennis L. Via meets with soldiers during a leadership trip this year to Germany.

Though Via was a hard-working student who had perfect attendance all 12 years of his schooling, he envisioned eventually 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 ultimately 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, Virginia, 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. …

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