Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Venables carved niche with history


John Venables

John H. Venables, who gained statewide attention for his portrayals of famous figures from Alaska history, died July 1 at an assisted living facility in Delta Junction of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 75.

Venables dressed as William Henry Seward, Judge James Wickersham, and Bob Bartlett and re-enacted their speeches to educate school children, adults and visitors about Alaska history.

Robert Venables said his father was "enthusiastic, optimistic, and a great supporter of life as we live it – past, present, and future."

A Juneau Empire editorial this week mourned Venables and praised his work, noting that Alaskans will have a statue to remember him by in the capital. A bronze of William Henry Seward that Venables championed is expected to be unveiled on July 4, 2017.

Venables took out newspaper ads acknowledging the birthdays of Alaska territorial and state leaders like former governors Bill Egan and Jay Hammond, and placed "Happy Birthday" signs at the capital for all to see.

On the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Legislature two years ago, Venables dressed as William Henry Seward and re-enacted Seward's Alaska purchase speech in the legislative chambers. "It was very moving for old-timers, for all of us; he brought tears to your eyes," said state Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

John Henry Venables Jr. was born July 15, 1939 in Pittsburgh, Pa. His father John Sr. was an airline mechanic and mother Eleanor Katherine Venables was a police dispatcher. The family moved to Miami after John contracted polio, on advice that a warmer climate would help. He made a complete recovery.

Venables remained close to family in Pittsburgh, and as a young man he became a big Pirates fan and team promoter. For his 21st birthday he was invited to throw out the first pitch at a game, the family said. In high school in Miami he excelled in drama, and later performed in plays at Florida State University, where he was in the ROTC program, earned a degree in business, and met his wife, Betty Overholser of Miami. They married three days after graduating in January 1962.

Venables served two years in Washington, D.C. in military intelligence, remained active in the Army reserve and retired as a major in 1978. The Venables family returned to Miami, where Venables worked in credit bureaus, sales and marketing.

His passion remained professional sports. When the Dolphins football team came to Miami in 1960, he joined the "Touchdown Club," a volunteer promotional group.

"He really found his heart's desire on the ball field when the Florida Marlins were formed," son Robert said. As a volunteer Marlins booster, he sold so many season tickets that the team sent him to three World Series in appreciation. At the stadium, Venables' booster crew was known as the "Johnny V. Club" and was pictured on a Marlins' billboard.

Daughter Karen Wenger said her father took them on a family trip to Alaska in the 1970s and after that became a huge fan, subscribing to Alaska Magazine and soaking up state history. Venables' children moved to Alaska in the 1980s, and he followed son Robert and wife Betty to Haines after caring for his infirm father in 2001.

Dave Nanney said John Venables had high hopes for Haines, but that didn't materialize because he needed a "bigger canvas" that Juneau provided.

"He was a great promoter. He tried to increase visitors from Whitehorse, but he had no staff, no money. He was totally gregarious and outgoing and universally loved by people who liked what he was doing, but he was sort of avoided by people who didn't want to be put to work," Nanney said.

Venables was teaching elementary students at the Covenant Life Center when he took a class to visit the capital and realized few Alaskans knew much about the state's historical leaders. He saw an opportunity to bring them back to life.

He formed a company called Alaska Living History. He struggled until a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum allowed him to travel around the state and research and develop his characters in depth. "His highlight was performing at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Alaska Day, October 18, 2009," Robert said.

Venables is now credited with making some Alaska history himself. Juneau assemblywoman Mary Becker is chairman of the Seward Statue Project. "It was our greatest prayer for him to live to be here when we dedicate the Seward statue in 2017. He was our inspiration. John once said to me, 'I love statuary,' so I know he will be there in spirit."

Venables spent the last year with family in Delta Junction. Karen Wenger said her father never tired of thinking big. "To the end he was still thinking of ways to promote Alaska."

His parents and younger brother James preceded Venables in death. He is survived by wife Betty of Canby, Calif.; and by five children: Robert of Haines, Karen Wenger, Rebekah Bailey, and Esther Venables of Delta Junction, and William of Juneau. He had ten grandchildren.

There will be services in Delta Junction, Haines and Canby.

Donations in John Venables' memory may be made to the Seward Statue Project at the Juneau Community Foundation, 350 N. Franklin St., Juneau, AK 99824.


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