Vernard W. Henley, retired CEO of Consolidated Bank & Trust Company, died recently at eighty five. He simply was, “V.W.” to me – at his insistence.
We received appointments as trustees of the Virginia Retirement System within weeks of each other, sitting side by side, sharing full five year terms together…me in my sixties – he in his seventies. His appointment was a gubernatorial selection (Mark Warner) while mine was a product of the General Assembly of Virginia. Sharing membership on the Benefits and Actuarial Committee, and the Administration and Personnel Committees would keep us together at least twice a month at that 12th & Main Street location.
VW’s death leaves his beloved Richmond community with a staggering loss. His service role in multiple capacities over five decades was unprecedented: director of the Old Dominion Bar Association, a trustee of the University Fund of Virginia Commonwealth University, active with the United Negro College Fund; board of directorships: Owens & Minor, Inc., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Manassas Education Foundation, Virginia Community Development Foundation…one simply cannot begin to count the ways.
Gilmer Minor III, former chairman of Owens & Minor, is totally accurate: “he was soft spoken…and the type of person who did not try to dominate or control a conversation…but when he had something to say, everybody listened…he was reflective and very conscientious.” That’s the V.W. I was blessed to know, sit next to, and admire.
Henley took that oldest continuously black-owned U.S. bank, and in his presidency, grew it from $14 million in assets to $115 million when he retired – with seven branches in the Richmond area and Hampton Roads. It occurred to me that V.W. intuitively understood that he could not be only as good as his white business counterparts; he had to work harder, be better.
V.W. delighted in sharing his experiences of being a black Richmond banker – among the white elite of banking CEOs – and Richmond corporate leadership. His description of the special relationship cultivated with E. Claiborne Robins was a classic – one he shared with relish. After Henley became CEO of Consolidated Bank, Claiborne Robins personally called him – requesting his visit to A.H. Robins Company. He had observed V.W.’s professional acumen, wanted to finally meet him, and perhaps open a business account with Consolidated. Laughing, he said it was the business-call of his life. Still – it came to me that it spoke reams about the character of both men.
We worried together about the effects of Hurricane Katrina – in New Orleans. It seems that son, Vernard W. Henley, Jr., of whom he was proud, lived there with his young family, confronted with total uprooting because “the Big Easy” became anything but easy. V.W. and wife, Pheriby, stewed over the circumstances that young Henley, Jr’s family found itself. Not only did I get a blow-by-blow account of the disastrous circumstances facing New Orleans, but learned how different V.W. found his grandchildren’s generation from his own. That would be a discovery of mine soon enough.
Looking back on those years with V.W., I always thought of him as a precursor to the personality of U.S. Davis Cup team captain, Arthur Ashe. Bold – only when necessary – particularly over racial minority challenges, but with a banker’s temperament, smeared thickly with obvious elegance. Seemingly, he refused to be dragged into any contentious discussion over matters-of-the-hour. He was no shrinking violet, but no bomb-thrower either. In some of the most contentious decades in this country’s racial history, he could not help himself – he was a gentleman by nature, which was persuasive in any setting.
Jim Rorrer, of our Men’s Fellowship Group, is fond of quoting Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar ordained in the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, 1970….on C. S. Lewis: “C.S. Lewis believed it was undemocratic to give too much power to the present generation or one’s own times…calling this “chronological snobbery,” as if your own age was the superior age – the final result of evolution.” It’s clear that VW’s legacy disputes that characterization – simply by being who he was – working to improve his generation against great odds. This is not a life to discard or dismiss with years.
The last time I saw V.W. and Pheriby together was at Skilligalee Restaurant, not long before she got sick. She looked at us with her school-teacher authority, and said,” Crispy fried oysters.” We gratefully complied. Complying with the Henley’s was easy. He will always be V.W. to me.