By Megan CottonSeptember 26, 2016
From humble beginnings to the first four-star signal branch officer, Gen. Dennis L. Via's life and career has been nothing short of exceptional.
Born and raised in the small industrial town of Martinsville, Virginia, Via's father was a house painter and instilled in him and his younger brother the value of hard work.
"My father had a fifth grade education, but a Ph.D. in common sense," Via said.
His family and his community built Via's foundation of integrity and compassion for others. He had no plans to go to college, much less become an Army officer. That was until his high school teacher Edward Fontaine spoke to a young Via.
"Mr. Fontaine told me, 'I think you should go to college. You are a leader.' It was the first time I was ever called a leader," said Via.
Fontaine helped fill out the necessary paperwork for Via to get accepted to Virginia State University. During his freshman year there, Via and his family were hit with tragedy when his father passed away unexpectedly.
"That was the first time adversity had hit me. I had to grow up fast. I had just turned 18, and I became the man of the house," said Via, who, alongside his brother, finished painting every house his father had committed to before his death. "My father always taught us that your word is your bond."
Returning to VSU for his sophomore year, Via's life changed again when he began talking to two Army officers in the student union.
"They told me about this camp in Kentucky, and I'd never been to camp. They said they would pay me $500 and fly me there; I'd never flown on a plane. A plane ticket, $500, and I get to go to camp -- I thought where do I sign up?" Via said with a laugh. "I even rushed back to my fraternity house and told my brothers about the great deal they were giving away in the Student Union, and that they needed to sign up before they sold out."
Attending summer ROTC camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, was a great experience for the young college student.
"I loved every bit of it. I loved the physical challenges; I loved the leadership, but still I wasn't certain that it was what I wanted to do," said Via, who enrolled in ROTC for his junior year and attended another camp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the following summer.
When he commissioned into the Army in 1980, his brother represented his family in pinning on his second lieutenant bars. On the other shoulder was Linda Brown, of Warsaw, Virginia, then his college sweetheart and now his wife of 33 years.
"Linda was there at the beginning, and I was blessed enough that she was there to pin on my fourth star," he said. "She's done so much for our family, providing that foundation. I would not be here today without the love and support she has provided me throughout my career."
Throughout those 33 years of marriage, the couple had two sons, Brian and Bradley. It was an assignment as an aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Harold Davis in Naples, Italy, that instilled the importance of work/life balance for Via.
During the assignment, Davis became ill and was sent to the hospital. After doctors found a brain tumor, Via recalled asking for a prognosis and being told the general had eight months to live.
"That shook me," he said. "I remember he had a pad of paper and wrote, 'Love my family to the best of my ability, buy them a home in Virginia, and take care of my staff.' That's when I really learned the importance of taking time for yourself and your family."
Via said he always tried to preserve his family time, going on vacations and spending weekends together.
"We are very proud of the men Brian and Bradley have become and the values we see in them -- respect for people, hard work, and being genuine," he said. "My family is my greatest accomplishment. When I look back on my career, I am proud of the fact that when I finish, my family is still with me. That is the greatest achievement anyone can have."
From his early days, mentors have played an important role in Via's life and career, helping shape his leadership style and philosophy. Countless leaders such as Lt. Gen. Robert Gray, Gen. B.B. Bell, and Gen. Benjamin Griffin taught Via about professionalism, taking care of people and the importance of having mentors and being a mentor.
Via, who is the first Signal Officer to achieve the rank of four-star general and one of only eight four-star African American generals in Army history, credits those many leaders with his ability to stay humble as he found success.
"I've been privileged to really stand on the shoulders of so many great men and women who came before me," Via said. "I've been blessed to be the first many times in my career, but Lt. Gen. Gray told me, 'Don't worry about being the first; just make sure you aren't the last.'"
Via has paid it forward by spending much of his career reaching out to students and ROTC cadets. The ROTC program holds a special place in his heart, and he heralded the importance of the program throughout 2016, the centennial anniversary for Army ROTC.
"As an Army senior leader, I know the Army would not exist as it does today without ROTC and the powerful leadership the program has produced," Via said. "ROTC has a proven track record for developing leaders and building the next generation of military and civic leaders."
Via was inducted into the ROTC Hall of Fame in June.
With students, Via shares his keys to success in hopes of providing them knowledge of countless opportunities available to them and inspiration to reach for their goals and realize their dreams.
"I feel strongly that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. There are many talented young men and women that don't have the opportunity, so I think in some small way, if Linda and I can go out and visit schools, I can share and hopefully inspire someone to do what they want to do in their life," he said.