Leading The People's University
The trip from the small, segregated southern town of Staunton Virginia to the Director of Cleveland's Public Library was an interesting one for Andrew Venable.
He started out his interesting journey on Armistice Day, November 11, 1944. His father was in Germany at the time and he and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents.
He stayed in Staunton until the end of High School. In 1963 he went to Virginia State University and earned a degree in Business Administration. In 1967 he was recruited by Sohio and spent a summer internship in Kentucky/West Virginia as a marketing trainee.
He did such a remarkable job determining patterns, assessing the competition and performing economic analysis that he was written up in the Sohio News. He was a junior in college at this time and Sohio offered him a full scholarship for his last year of College and promised him a job when he graduated.
He stayed with Sohio until 1970. He had a plan to open his own business in the Bahamas, but it didn't quite work out.
Another meaningful summer job during his college days was at the JC Penney Department Store. It was 1964 and the store had no black salespeople and they wanted to integrate. So they called Virginia State and Andrew was recommended.
He went to work in their men's clothing department. Conditions were not especially friendly. His white co-workers only acknowledged him when the boss was around and his work was checked and double checked with hopes of finding errors.
This did not stop Andrew; in fact it didn't even slow him down. He knew a big sale was coming up at Penney's and he started announcing it in the school cafeteria. But he told the students, "When you come in, ask for Mr. Venable". And they did.
There was a line all the way outside the store. People with their one or two items - all waiting to have Mr. Venable wait on them. Sales that day were huge, and from then on the ice was broken and he was accepted as an integral part of the work force.
Without knowing it or seeking it out, Andrew Venable became a civil rights pioneer.
Saturdays in Petersburg, Virginia during this time were usually the days the KKK marched. They wore the robes but never bothered to cover their faces. It was still a time when the practice was accepted. Andrew remembers it only as a part of the culture of the time.
He enjoyed all of his internships and work experience "Otherwise I would have been dealing just with theory, this way I was able to understand business - from text book to politics".
From 1970 to 1983 he was at the Cleveland Public Library as Assistant Director of Personnel and then Head of Finance and Administrative Services.
In 1977 he decided that in order to do this job properly he needed more education in the field. As a result he earned his Masters Degree in Library Science from Case Western Reserve.
By this time Dr. Ervin Gaines was Administrative Director of the Library. The Outreach program for the branches retired and Andrew was offered the job. He remembers telling Dr. Gaines "If, in your best judgment, I am the best qualified, then I accept."
From 1983-1988 Venable was the Director of the East Cleveland Public Library - a monumental task. He inherited a terrible situation that eventually involved a state examiner and an investigative audit. As a result of the activities of some people before him he eventually had to testify in ten different trials.
During this time he was not only re-building the library but was adding to it. He created a Math and Science Lab and started a very successful music series held on Sundays and joined Clevnet.
Even though there was scandal around the library, the 25,000 people the library served trusted Venable and respected his ideas. He was able to have the very first Library operating levy pass amidst all of the turmoil his predecessors created. "I often think, if you can relate to people they will respect you and they will share your mission."
After East Cleveland he was off to Gary, Indiana and spent the next five years there. Always ready to tackle a problem head-on, Andrew was notified on the radio - before he ever got to his office on his first day, that one of his branches had to close because of gas fumes.
He found out that the main building had broken air conditioning and windows that didn't open. He discovered cracked walls and foundations at one branch that vibrated whenever a truck went by. And most discouraging of all was the discovery that there was no money to fix any of the buildings.
Once again, Andrew went to the people and at a town hall meeting outlined the dilemma. On his reputation, strong presentation and good name he was able to pass the bond issue needed to build a whole brand new library. He used local people to do the work, giving them a sense of pride and accomplishment. The job was finished in time and under budget!
In 1994 he moved again - this time to Washington D.C. as Deputy Director of their library system. It was in 1997 that he got the call from Cleveland Public Library to the position of Deputy Director. With many years experience and his Masters in Library Science under his belt, Venable was ready and very able to do the job.
It was during his time at the East Cleveland Library that heartbreak struck Andrew Venable and his family. He and his then wife Maxine had two children; a son and a daughter.
September 15, 1986 his 15-year-old son, Alex was practicing football at Heights High when his muscle system collapsed. He died from an undiagnosed metabolic disorder. "It was a complete reverse of nature. A parent should never have to bury their children".
Andrew also had three brothers, but his brother Don died of AIDS soon after his son's death - making the tragedy that much harder to deal with.
The tragedies helped him appreciate what he has and put his value system in order. "I talk to my son everyday. I miss him and wonder what he would have become. I know he would have been special because he was special. One must adjust to what one has."
And what he has includes a daughter and son-in-law and their wonderful children and a stepdaughter from a second marriage that he loves like his own. He also has both of his parents, who still live in Staunton.
He learned his value system from his family and it includes: honesty, treating people right and speaking to people. "There's no point in pretending they're not there. Greet them. Wish them a good day. Never forget who you are and whose you are".
The library is a wonderful opportunity for Andrew to see these values at work. He learned about "people pride" working in Gary and again in East Cleveland. "People want to be part of it, and they should be."
Venable sees a library as a great equalizer. "Everyone has abundant opportunities in a library - and everyone's opportunities are the same". "The library", he says "is the cornerstone of democracy. For many it is a doorway to freedom."
He stands firm on the library's mission to provide world wide access to people and organizations in a timely, convenient and equitable manner. He would very much like to see the library used even more than it is.
People come in now and say how much it has changed and how they haven't been in the library in 25 years or more. Now they come back and see a wonderful full-service organization with literally something for everyone.
To entice people even more, and to add to the many benefits the library provides he offers a series of lectures by award winning authors. Hundred of people attend each session some coming from as far as New York.
It is successful because of its simplicity: it is free, you can hear and meet the author, you can ask questions and you can purchase the books and get autographs. It is an experience of cultural enrichment and Andrew is very proud of its success.
He is also pleased that the library can now provide access 24 hours a day, seven days a week through their Internet site www.cpl.org
Probably the biggest challenge Venable has had since returning to Cleveland has been the passing of the Library Levy (Issue 2) last May. He felt so strongly that it was essential, and he had faith that people would realize that even though times may be difficult, the library has value and must be supported.
His hard work paid off and the issue was passed.
When he returned to work the day after the election there was a model of singer James Brown on his desk.
When he pressed the button the singer jumped into action and mirrored Venable's mood with his rendition of "I Feel Good".
Andrew Carnegie, the founder of libraries, compared the library to a University of the People. Andrew Venable agrees with this concept, and created The People's University.
"Both systems are public-access institutions and both provide information." Andrew goes on to compare the two saying that both are vital to learning and both are funded by the people who use them.
He has loved Cleveland from day one, referring to it as a "big country town" with everything right here. "We have the Metro Parks. There's some hills, some green, some open space. It's not just all concrete. There are many great things in Cleveland and the Library is one of them."
He lives in downtown Cleveland and fondly remembers places like Higbees, Halles, The May Company and a favorite dining spot - The Rusty Scupper. "Look at Playhouse Square" he boasts, " It's tremendous!"
As to the future, Andrew is certain books will always be part of it. "Books are the most convenient computer you can ask for. Pick them up. Put them down. Open them. Close them. Little at a time or a lot at once. Books are there for you whenever you want it and they are always accessible at no cost."
The majority of Andrew Venable's life and time is taken up by the library, but not all of it. He finds time for his family, his church and his music. As a child, Andrew watched Pete Fountain play his clarinet on the Lawrence Welk Show and decided he too wanted to play this instrument. He took 4 ½ years of training and learned to play "That I do just for myself".
He also has a magnificent speaking voice that carries over into his singing. In 1997, he created the Library Chorus, which is made up of staff member volunteers. There are about 40 of these multi-talented employees and the Chorus puts on a special Christmas show the 2nd Friday of December every year. People come from as far away as Columbus to hear them sing.
As for his Church, The Olivet Institutional Baptist Church provides him with strength and inspiration throughout the week. "When I came back to Cleveland I came here alone. I had been through two deaths and two divorces and I was lonely," he says he never lost his faith, he just needed to build on the foundation and Olivet Church provided that for him.
"You have to turn to something and if you don't have faith you will probably turn to the bottle or drugs. I thank God I had, and still have, faith." As he prays for his son everyday he thanks God for the chance to spend time with him.
"There is a self-imposed loneliness when you are a leader. You have to find things you enjoy on your own." He has no problem showing emotions ("How could I have survived if I still lived in a world where men where not allowed to cry?") and has no problem asking people to pray with and for him.
This is a man of vision and action. He combines strength and compassion in perfect proportion and allows people the opportunity to grow. He believes in God, himself and his neighbor. He has been handed much heartache, yet he makes time to sing.
Andrew Venable is director of The People's University and the people would do well to follow in his footsteps.
Update: Sadly, Andrew's daughter Angie notified us that her dad passed away on Thursday, May 5, 2016. He will be missed.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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