Friday, September 7

Friday's Happy News

Samiha Khanna
News & Observer
Updated: 9/6/2007

It was in the ironworkers' shop at the Golden Gate Bridge where Joe Venable started getting weepy-eyed again, witnesses said.

He saw workers clad in overalls manage massive pieces of steel and listened as metal clinked on metal and welding sparks crackled.

All along, the 71-year-old custodian from Mangum Elementary School kept tearfully remarking, "I'm here because of the students."

A group of fifth-graders surprised Venable and his wife Alease, 76, in May with tickets to San Francisco. They heard the school's only full-time janitor once mention he always wanted to see the renowned bridge in person and raised about $2,000 for the trip.

He never knew how many people would hear him.

As news of the students' gift spread, people nationwide sent donations to the school --enough to pay for $3,500 in meals, activities and spending money, much more than anticipated, said Principal Gwendolyn Johnson. The San Francisco mayor's office called to arrange the Venables' itinerary, and a bridge supervisor wanted to give the couple a personal tour.

"I had no idea that I would get this kind of attention," Joe Venable said by telephone in July, as a taxi whisked him to a lunch appointment.

Venable, a reserved man who usually hides his gray wisps of hair beneath a ball cap, has worked at Mangum for three years, Johnson said.

He never takes sick leave and rarely goes on vacation, she said. And since the day the children told him they were sending him on a memorable trip, he has become endearingly weepy, marking most of his thank-yous with tears.

The surprises have continued. The three-day trip became a five-day vacation when the Hilton Hotel where the Venables were staying threw in a couple of extra nights.

And a San Francisco salon called Alease Venable on Thursday and offered her a free hair appointment after stylists saw her on the news, according to the couple's daughter, Patricia Lea of Yanceyville.

Lea, 56, booked a ticket to travel with her parents months ago, she said. She thought they needed help navigating the city, but she has become their impromptu press agent instead, booking interviews for her parents with eager media outlets, including ABC's "Good Morning America."

As the family walked toward the famous bridge Thursday, a throng of news cameras followed them and people noticed, Lea said.

"I heard someone say, 'These must be celebrities,' " Lea said.

They are being treated as such, if only for a few days. The family's tour of the bridge was one few people receive, and it took them to the top of the structure for a grand view of the sprawling city. Then, someone put a keepsake piece of cable and rust-red steel rivet into Joe Venable's hands.

"We can't do this for everyone," said Mary Currie, director of public affairs for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

Currie said the VIP treatment usually is reserved for elected officials and dignitaries. And on a Thursday in July, for Joe Venable, school custodian

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