Center for Excellence Honoree: Kenn VenitNo student passes through one of Professor Kenn Venit's communications courses without hearing "the bear story."
Back in 1972, Venit was 27 years old and a bit of a daredevil. When he heard about the opportunity to wrestle an 800-pound bear, he eagerly volunteered. It would make great news footage for Channel 8, the New Haven television station where he worked.
"If you could wrestle the bear for one minute, you'd get $1,000," he said, of the event, part of a sportsmen's show at the Hartford armory. "I got in the ring with this 8-foot bear and lasted about 55 seconds. Then the trainer made a gesture and the bear took me down. I'm lying there, and the bear has a tongue about 8 or 9 inches long, and he's licking my ear.
"My students love that story because they never had a professor who wrestled a bear before," he said. "I also had an exclusive interview with Richard Nixon, but my students aren't impressed with that. It's the bear story they love."
And, apparently, they love the professor, too. Venit received the university's Excellence in Teaching Award, along with two other faculty members, on Oct. 19 in the Recreation Center. He is the first professor from the School of Communications and the first part-time professor to earn that honor.
Venit, a former Connecticut television news personality who has worked at Channels 3, 8 and 30, has covered everything from weather to the legislature while working as an anchor, reporter, producer, assignment editor, weather forecaster, quiz show host and sportscaster. By 1982, he was ready for a change and joined a TV consulting firm. He started his own consulting and media-training company in 1998.
Despite the levity of the bear story, Venit is "all business" when it comes to covering serious news. When you're a journalist, you have to be prepared for the unexpected, he tells his class on the first day of the semester. He then puts on a videotape of a rather routine press conference initiated by then Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert Budd Dwyer. During the televised press conference in 1987, Dwyer committed suicide. The students are then given three minutes to write an Associated Press-style news bulletin.
"It is a quick lesson that any time you're a journalist you may have that element of surprise," he said. "I try to make the students sweat, and I succeed. Some absolutely hate that lesson, and others feel the adrenaline, the rush of breaking news."
In his classroom, there is no "hiding" -- extensive participation is expected, he said. He also tells his students that "your grade is my grade," setting the stage for a solid working relationship.
"He gave not only me but every member of the class more of a passion and the mind-set that any one of us could succeed," wrote student John Mayer in his letter nominating Venit for the Excellence in Teaching Award. "I am also a professional DJ and he has gone out of his way to get my name across to others. professor Venit did more than just teach a broadcasting class. Professor Venit taught us about life."
Venit keeps students well-informed about jobs, internships and conferences, said Christine King, a Quinnipiac alumna who is now working at NBC in New York.
"Professor Kenn Venit is an amazing mentor," King, wrote in her letter of nomination. "He always goes above and beyond for his students. For example, his father-in-law passed away the day before our class was supposed to do our second on-air talk show. Professor Venit made arrangements for us to still go on with the show. He always has a smile on his face and words of wisdom to offer his students."
Venit taught a few communications courses at Quinnipiac in 1979 and 1980 and then returned five years ago on a regular basis. He teaches six days a week and is an academic adviser, in addition to running his full-time business.
He is so dedicated to his students that even a minor heart attack in January didn't keep him away from Quinnipiac. He had that heart attack on a Thursday, had surgery on Friday, went home Saturday, rested Sunday and was in the classroom (with his cardiologist's permission) Monday -- because he didn't want to miss the first day of the semester.
Student Sharon Schwartz describes Venit as "very energetic and humorous" and said he keeps students' attention through a course.
A personal tragedy in his own life, the suicide of a brilliant and beloved nephew at 19, also shapes Venit's role as a professor. He chooses to share the painful story with his students in hopes of helping them.
"No one saw it coming," he said, the sadness in his voice. "I think of him as the victim of a horrible disease, bipolar I. I know a lot of college students think about suicide, and many attempt it. Some disabilities aren't always obvious, and depression is one of them."
He feels professors are on the front line in addressing these issues and he doesn't hesitate to ask students if they have a problem that's causing them to miss class. As a result of his candidness, several students have come forward and said they were depressed, and he has referred them for help.
"I'm trying to take the tragedy of my nephew's death and help others not take that path," he said.
Venit, a part-time associate professor, said he is extremely honored to receive the Excellence in Teaching award.
"I feel this award is for the 750 part-time faculty members. It shows that the university values us and allows us to use our established credentials in the classroom," he said. "But I couldn't do it without the advice, constructive criticism and direction from my fulltime colleagues. I consider myself a 'de-pendent contractor.'
Venit and his wife of 40 years, Bonni, are residents of Hamden. They have two married daughters and six grandchildren, with a seventh on the way. They all live close to campus.
"My grandkids love Quinnipiac," he said. "They eat here, they go to the games, they say, 'Grandpa works at a great place...' -and I do!"