Part of an occasional series highlighting University of Virginia employees who have taken advantage of the adult education benefit.
August 10, 2011 — Forty years after leaving school to support his family, University of Virginia housekeeper Ronnie Townsend has accomplished his goal of finishing his high school education.
The middle child of five children, Townsend left school to support his family at age 15 when his father became ill with emphysema and heart trouble.
His father, who died four years later, never gave up on his son finishing his education. "I can remember it like yesterday, settin' on the front porch with him. … He asked me to promise him that I would eventually someday try to go back," Townsend said.
Yet supporting his family always took priority – first his siblings, and then his own wife and children.
Townsend applied to work at U.Va. in November when his job at a local hotel became insecure due to a management change. Despite 20 years of experience in the maintenance field, Townsend could not find a maintenance job without a GED or an official trades license.
"I decided to go ahead and make the move now because at the University at the time when I got online to start applying, housekeeping was the only thing that was hiring full time," he said.
Townsend works in Garrett Hall, where his supervisor, Pauline Cobbs, said he's very eager to learn and has a positive work attitude.
As a U.Va. employee, Townsend was able to take General Educational Development classes for free. Since 2002, the University has contracted with Charlottesville's Adult Learning Center to deliver on-Grounds GED classes, as well as classes in English as a second language.
With the support of his new colleagues and a work schedule that accommodated classes and exams, Townsend finished his GED classes quickly and with high marks.
Townsend credits the University with allowing him the flexibility in his schedule to attend classes. He also found support at home from his two grandchildren, a 12-year-old who read questions to him and a 15-year-old who was studying similar topics at the time.
Townsend said he is happy and relieved that he could fulfill his father's wish. "It's been a big step for me to keep this promise to him and finally get that achieved in my life," he said.
He hopes his GED certificate, along with new contacts and letters of recommendation at the University, will help his career prospects in trades utilities at U.Va.
Until he can secure an apprenticeship, Townsend plans to take advantage of all the educational opportunities offered to employees, such as computer, culinary and wine-tasting classes.
"I found going back to school at this age was a lot more enjoyable than when I was young," he said.
His wife Debra, who has worked at U.Va. for 32 years – currently in dining at John Paul Jones Arena – has taken some sort of class every year.
Townsend has gained a newfound interest in writing. His story, "Rock the Duck," about time spent on the Rockfish River in Nelson County, was published earlier this year in the Charlottesville Adult Learning Center's 15th annual "Voices of Adult Learners" booklet. He aims to write more stories with his 12-year-old granddaughter about their fishing and hunting adventures together and submit them to Field and Stream magazine.