Caltech's leaders, alumni, students, faculty, employees and other members of the local community gathered on Friday, October 21 on the Olive Walk along with the family of Grant D. Venerable (BS '32) for the dedication of Grant D. Venerable House. The undergraduate student residence was named in fall 2021 in honor of the late alumnus, who was the first Black undergraduate student to graduate from Caltech, as well as an active student leader and athlete during his time on campus.
Satoshi Ohtake, former president of the Caltech Alumni Association Board of Directors and a member of the renaming committee that put Venerable's name forward to the president and Board of Trustees, emceed the event. Other participants in the program, which culminated with the unveiling of the residence's new building signage, were Venerable's children—Grant D. Venerable II, Lynda Venerable Ellington, and Lloyd Venerable—as well as Aditi Seetharaman, current Venerable House president; Daniel Mukasa, current graduate student and former president of the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC); and Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum.
"Venerable seemed to embody, in so many different ways, what it means to be part of a community," Ohtake said. "He served as the president of the Caltech Cosmopolitan Club. This is an organization that was formed to promote fellowship among diverse nationalities. He contributed to the student newspaper, participated in athletics. He truly embraced the richness of the Caltech experience in terms of its academics, research, co-curricular experience, and exemplified the sort of engagement with the institution, his fellow peers, that any fellow alum of Caltech would appreciate, and we would hope all future students would also achieve."
This event was the culmination of more than a year of hard work by Caltech students, faculty, staff, alumni, and others. Venerable House was one of three buildings on campus, including Caltech Hall and the Lee F. Browne Dining Hall, that were officially renamed in 2021 as part of an Institute effort to not only reflect on Caltech's past but also to chart a future that represents and supports the Institute's continuing commitment to cultivate a thriving, supportive, and inclusive community of scholars.
"This really marks a new era for Caltech that I, in particular, am really looking forward to," said Mukasa, who worked with BSEC colleagues in 2020 to author a petition that ultimately led to the renaming process. "It's an era in which students who come to Caltech can really feel like they're entering a community in which the Institute is dedicated to making an inclusive environment."
Venerable's sons and daughter addressed the assembled crowd and talked about his experiences before and at Caltech, about the man he would become, and about how they felt having the house named in his honor. Venerable Ellington, his daughter, said, "When my older brother called me a number of months ago and told me that this was going to take place, I think I spent the next few days in joyous tears, truly."
Venerable Ellington detailed how her grandmother had wanted him to become a doctor—until he fainted at the sight of blood during an early biology lab course at USC. Undaunted, he switched his focus to engineering and set his sights on Caltech, passing the entrance exams and coming to campus in 1929.
His son, Grant D. Venerable II said: "Up to that time, no individual of his cultural background had graduated from Tech, but young Grant did in 1932. … Some thought him misguided, daring to think that he a descendant of people subjected to legalized bondage would not be subjected to keenest scrutiny for the slightest misstep."
Such extra scrutiny did not deter the senior Venerable. Unable to find engineering work after graduating during the Great Depression, he worked for several years at the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company of Los Angeles, one of two Black-owned insurance companies west of the Mississippi River, then moved on to several mining engineering projects in Death Valley. Back in Los Angeles, Venerable bought a hotel, which he operated with his brother-in-law. He later bought, managed, and operated the George R. Healey Manufacturing Company, which produced and distributed chalkboard erasers for major school districts across the country, until his death in 1986.
Before, during, and after his days at Caltech, Venerable was a joiner, Lynda said. He ran track at UCLA before coming to the Institute, and he became friends with legendary Olympic champion Jesse Owens. He joined a host of student organizations and clubs while at Caltech. After graduation, he returned to campus for alumni events. On one occasion, he introduced his children to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Athenaeum; another time, he took them to visit Palomar Observatory.
Seetharaman said all these traits made Venerable the perfect choice to become her house's namesake.
"When it came down to making a final decision about our house's name, Venerable was very much the obvious decision," she said. "He was a multitalented, ambitious, kind as we have heard, and passionate person, which is what we should all strive to be. As a house, we wanted to take this opportunity to honor someone who really embodies these amazing qualities, and Grant D. Venerable was absolutely the perfect fit. Yesterday, we were able to meet with members of this family and family friends, and it was such an incredible moment. It felt really like the work of the past year and a half was culminating in last night and today."
President Rosenbaum said the dedication of Venerable House, which is one of two renamed buildings being honored this year, is an important milestone in the Institute's future.
"Today is as much about change as it is about names," he said. "Today is as much about community as it is about names. Today is as much about the aspirations of what we and Caltech can be as it is about names."