By: Paige Cline
A couple years ago they named and dedicated a bridge for Leonard Valentine, one of the area’s most loved and respected educators and coach.
Not long before his death I had the opportunity to talk with the coach in his home. At the age of 86 Val was content to walk out on his porch high above the road that runs along the Guyandotte River and take in the view. From his vantage point he was able to see a large part of the town that he called home–a town that claims “Coach Val” as its own.
Since retiring from the school system after 41 years of teaching and coaching, Val passed the days watching TV, making his rounds to the post office and grocery store, and visiting with his many friends.
Coach Val was alone since his beloved wife Annie had passed away just a few months before. He make a visitor to his home feel like he is giving more than he gets. Nothing could be further from the truth. An hour or two spent with that living legend caused the visitor to leave feeling better about almost everything–from schools to churches, from morals to national politics, from discipline to curriculum. For one thing, despite misgivings, Coach Val never gave up on the nation’s youth. He had faith in the youngsters when he was teaching and coaching, and that faith remained with him.
Lennie (his mother’s name for him) grew up in Princeton, WV. His father was a workaholic and was on the job for long hours almost every day except Sunday. His mother worked for affluent white families in the town.
Val said he grew up around white children and recalled no problems with any families or playmates with regard to race. In fact, Val said that one of the first times that he felt a difference was when it came time to go to school. His white friends took one turn in the road, little Lennie took another.
A resourceful child, and big for his age, Lennie learned to drive his uncle’s car at the ripe old age of nine. This led to some jobs as he got a little older. One of those jobs required him to drive outside of Princeton to Kegley where he loaded up the milk from the cows owned by on of his mother’s employees. He then had to drive back to Princeton to deliver the milk.
Val completed the tenth grade at Princeton. His father’s employment made it necessary to move nearer to the coal mines of Raleigh County–to a place called Winding Gulf.
Schools at that time were segregated, so Val enrolled for his junior year at Byrd-Prillerman High School.
Upon graduation, Val became the first B-P graduate to go to college on a scholarship. He was recruited by Bluefield State College, then an all black institution. His “scholarship” meant that he was allowed to work for a few dollars a month. In 1934, Val was a star end at BSC, the team went 8-0-1. They were tied by nationally-prominent Morgan State. TheÂ
Bluefield system was patterned after that of Notre Dame. That suited Val just fine since he had grown up as an admirer of legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne.
Studies were not forgotten in athletics. Transportation being what it was in those days, the team was sometimes away from school for two weeks at a time. There was always a study period and was well used by young Valentine who majored in mathematics and science. The value of and education had been preached to him for many, many years.
When he graduated college, Val landed a job as a teacher and assistant coach at Stratton High School in Beckley.
In 1944 Val was told of an opening at Conley High in Wyoming County. He was interviewed by Superintendent Virgil Stewart, who would later become president of Concord College. Val had doubts, but when he was told he would make a hundred dollars a month, he did not hesitate. It was a decision that would shape his life and the lives of many youngsters for years to come.
Leonard Valentine came to Conley as a teacher and a coach. He was always a teacher. Despite his successes as a coach, he always considered himself a teacher first. When he came to Conley, it was the third smallest black school in the state. They had been playing six-man football. Now it would be eleven-man ball. Against the big boys.