VIRGINIA ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENTS

A Different Path to the Superintendency
A Different Path to the Superintendency

He was 17 years old, and suddenly he was lost.

If nothing else, recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and being unable to walk for a couple of months “gave me a lot of time to think,” Berry said with a laugh, recalling a time in his life that was anything but funny. “I had to refocus my thought process in terms of what I really wanted to do in my life.”  

Heavy stuff for a young man, but refocus he did. He found a new path, and almost three decades later he is superintendent of schools in Nottoway County.

How’d he get here? A lot of personal drive, to be sure, but none of this would have happened, he says, without the challenges he experienced and, most notably, the help of others. Gratitude is a thread that runs prominently through his story.

“It’s humbling when I start thinking back on the trials and tribulations that I’ve gone through,” Berry said. “I’m so thankful for the opportunities folks have given me. I owe a lot to a lot of folks.”

When Steven J. Danish first met Berry almost 30 years ago, he thought Berry was “the real deal.”

“And he’s remained that,” Danish said.

Danish, professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, called to tell me about Berry, who as a high school student in the late 1980s served as a mentor as part of a program financed by a federal research grant. It was developed by VCU’s psychology department, while Danish was chairman. A student at George Wythe High and a football and track standout, Berry was selected as one of the student leaders to work with middle school students and to talk about setting goals, overcoming obstacles and never giving up. He didn’t realize at the time he would call on those same lessons when his life turned upside down.

Berry played fullback and linebacker in football, and threw the shot put and discus in track. He was a solid performer who also was a team leader, said Philip Bladen, a former assistant football coach at Wythe.

“If you look up ‘coach’s dream’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Rock,” Bladen said, using Berry’s nickname. “He was supremely talented … [and] a coach on the field. He was quite an athlete and quite a fine young man.”

Sports kept him engaged at school and pushed him to dedicate himself in the classroom his last two years when it became clear college was an option. The University of North Carolina recruited him for the track team, he said, and extended an invitation to play football, too, but even with his academic push in his junior and senior years his grades still needed some work, so he planned to spend a year at Fork Union Military Academy. Days before school started, Berry injured his knee while playing a pickup basketball game. A medical exam determined he had a torn ligament, requiring major surgery.

Alone with his thoughts and his slowly healing knee made him realize sports might not be his future; his knee is still “messed up,” he says, in part from not having the resources to properly rehabilitate it. He recalled the VCU mentoring program, so he contacted Danish and asked if there might be some work available with the mentoring project while he finished recovering. Danish found something for him to do, and Berry rediscovered how much he enjoyed working with younger students.

Berry asked if Danish might help him take a class or two in the spring semester. Danish, who found funding for the courses, thought the classes Berry selected were too challenging. Instead, Berry insisted and earned A’s in each.

“It was then clear to me … that Rodney was a special person whose academic potential had been overlooked,” Danish says. “I must say I have been overwhelmed by his accomplishments academically and personally.”

Berry earned his undergraduate degree in biology from VCU, then a master’s in secondary education at the College of William & Mary and a doctorate in educational leadership from VCU.

He taught biology and chemistry in Richmond public schools, coached football and track at Armstrong High and George Wythe High, then went into school administration, moving among school systems as he rose through the ranks: assistant principal, principal, director of instruction, and, currently, superintendent in Nottoway, a system of almost 2,000 students southwest of Richmond that hired him in July 2016.

Shelli Hinton, chairman of the Nottoway school board, describes Berry as “truly one of the most humble and gracious human beings I’ve ever met.

“He always has a smile, and he treats everyone well,” Hinton said. “When you meet him, you feel like you’ve known him forever. He approaches things with a positive attitude all the time. When you work with somebody like that, it makes you want to do your best.”

She recalled the time an elementary student came to school wearing a bow tie. When his teacher asked why he was dressed up, the boy said he wanted to look like Berry, who frequently wears bow ties (he credits the late William C. Bosher, a former Henrico and Chesterfield school superintendent and state superintendent of public instruction for teaching him how to tie a bow tie). Someone sent an email to Berry about the child, who quickly visited the school to meet the student.

“In 30 years, I’ve never worked for anybody that would do anything like that,” said Hinton, a longtime public school teacher. “That just goes to show how caring he is. Those are the kinds of things that make a difference.”

As superintendent, Berry said, he misses the constant interaction with students, but he makes a point of visiting at least one school every day. On a visit to Nottoway Middle School at lunchtime, Berry walked among the tables, smiling, talking and high-fiving students. Genially slapping hands with kids is a small gesture — like visiting a student who wore your signature bow tie to school — but “those small moments mean a lot to them,” Berry said.

“You want to make sure you leave a good impression on them because ultimately, hopefully, they’ll step in our footsteps and do an even better job than what I’m doing today,” he said.

You had people who did that for you?

“Absolutely, my goodness, yeah,” he said.

People like his uncle and aunt — Raymond and Beatrice Allen — who stepped in after his grandmother’s death, took him out of Gilpin Court and into their home and raised him. He was 5 years old.

“They didn’t have to do that,” Berry said, “but they did.”

Over lunch at Bravo Italian Grill in Crewe, he reflected on the twists and turns of his life that could have veered wildly off the rails if not for hard work — along with good fortune, good decisions and good people.

“We all have our own stories,” said Berry, who is married with a daughter in middle school and lives in Henrico. “I’m just grateful to the people that were in my story and still are. They helped me along the way. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those people. God puts people in your life to open some doors for you and help you out.”

This article by Bill Lohmann appeared in the November 21 issue of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

He was 17 years old, and suddenly he was lost.

If nothing else, recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and being unable to walk for a couple of months “gave me a lot of time to think,” Berry said with a laugh, recalling a time in his life that was anything but funny. “I had to refocus my thought process in terms of what I really wanted to do in my life.”  

Heavy stuff for a young man, but refocus he did. He found a new path, and almost three decades later he is superintendent of schools in Nottoway County.

How’d he get here? A lot of personal drive, to be sure, but none of this would have happened, he says, without the challenges he experienced and, most notably, the help of others. Gratitude is a thread that runs prominently through his story.

“It’s humbling when I start thinking back on the trials and tribulations that I’ve gone through,” Berry said. “I’m so thankful for the opportunities folks have given me. I owe a lot to a lot of folks.”

When Steven J. Danish first met Berry almost 30 years ago, he thought Berry was “the real deal.”

“And he’s remained that,” Danish said.

Danish, professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, called to tell me about Berry, who as a high school student in the late 1980s served as a mentor as part of a program financed by a federal research grant. It was developed by VCU’s psychology department, while Danish was chairman. A student at George Wythe High and a football and track standout, Berry was selected as one of the student leaders to work with middle school students and to talk about setting goals, overcoming obstacles and never giving up. He didn’t realize at the time he would call on those same lessons when his life turned upside down.

Berry played fullback and linebacker in football, and threw the shot put and discus in track. He was a solid performer who also was a team leader, said Philip Bladen, a former assistant football coach at Wythe.

“If you look up ‘coach’s dream’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Rock,” Bladen said, using Berry’s nickname. “He was supremely talented … [and] a coach on the field. He was quite an athlete and quite a fine young man.”

Sports kept him engaged at school and pushed him to dedicate himself in the classroom his last two years when it became clear college was an option. The University of North Carolina recruited him for the track team, he said, and extended an invitation to play football, too, but even with his academic push in his junior and senior years his grades still needed some work, so he planned to spend a year at Fork Union Military Academy. Days before school started, Berry injured his knee while playing a pickup basketball game. A medical exam determined he had a torn ligament, requiring major surgery.

Alone with his thoughts and his slowly healing knee made him realize sports might not be his future; his knee is still “messed up,” he says, in part from not having the resources to properly rehabilitate it. He recalled the VCU mentoring program, so he contacted Danish and asked if there might be some work available with the mentoring project while he finished recovering. Danish found something for him to do, and Berry rediscovered how much he enjoyed working with younger students.

Berry asked if Danish might help him take a class or two in the spring semester. Danish, who found funding for the courses, thought the classes Berry selected were too challenging. Instead, Berry insisted and earned A’s in each.

“It was then clear to me … that Rodney was a special person whose academic potential had been overlooked,” Danish says. “I must say I have been overwhelmed by his accomplishments academically and personally.”

Berry earned his undergraduate degree in biology from VCU, then a master’s in secondary education at the College of William & Mary and a doctorate in educational leadership from VCU.

He taught biology and chemistry in Richmond public schools, coached football and track at Armstrong High and George Wythe High, then went into school administration, moving among school systems as he rose through the ranks: assistant principal, principal, director of instruction, and, currently, superintendent in Nottoway, a system of almost 2,000 students southwest of Richmond that hired him in July 2016.

Shelli Hinton, chairman of the Nottoway school board, describes Berry as “truly one of the most humble and gracious human beings I’ve ever met.

“He always has a smile, and he treats everyone well,” Hinton said. “When you meet him, you feel like you’ve known him forever. He approaches things with a positive attitude all the time. When you work with somebody like that, it makes you want to do your best.”

She recalled the time an elementary student came to school wearing a bow tie. When his teacher asked why he was dressed up, the boy said he wanted to look like Berry, who frequently wears bow ties (he credits the late William C. Bosher, a former Henrico and Chesterfield school superintendent and state superintendent of public instruction for teaching him how to tie a bow tie). Someone sent an email to Berry about the child, who quickly visited the school to meet the student.

“In 30 years, I’ve never worked for anybody that would do anything like that,” said Hinton, a longtime public school teacher. “That just goes to show how caring he is. Those are the kinds of things that make a difference.”

As superintendent, Berry said, he misses the constant interaction with students, but he makes a point of visiting at least one school every day. On a visit to Nottoway Middle School at lunchtime, Berry walked among the tables, smiling, talking and high-fiving students. Genially slapping hands with kids is a small gesture — like visiting a student who wore your signature bow tie to school — but “those small moments mean a lot to them,” Berry said.

“You want to make sure you leave a good impression on them because ultimately, hopefully, they’ll step in our footsteps and do an even better job than what I’m doing today,” he said.

You had people who did that for you?

“Absolutely, my goodness, yeah,” he said.

People like his uncle and aunt — Raymond and Beatrice Allen — who stepped in after his grandmother’s death, took him out of Gilpin Court and into their home and raised him. He was 5 years old.

“They didn’t have to do that,” Berry said, “but they did.”

Over lunch at Bravo Italian Grill in Crewe, he reflected on the twists and turns of his life that could have veered wildly off the rails if not for hard work — along with good fortune, good decisions and good people.

“We all have our own stories,” said Berry, who is married with a daughter in middle school and lives in Henrico. “I’m just grateful to the people that were in my story and still are. They helped me along the way. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those people. God puts people in your life to open some doors for you and help you out.”

This article by Bill Lohmann appeared in the November 21 issue of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

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