Vonnye Rice Gardner
ACC Adjunct Professor Vonnye Rice Gardner has quietly led a life of impactful achievements. It’s not surprising considering her ancestry. Her Great Grandfather, a former slave, helped establish a school that was named for him in Houston, Texas. Her father, Professor Friendly Rice, was a principal in three different elementary schools in Austin – Rosewood, later named F. R. Rice Secondary School, St John Elementary School, and Blackshear School. During the early 1930s at Blackshear School, he started the first hot lunch program in the South using his own money to feed hungry, lower income children. Her father’s philosophy has been a guiding force in Vonnye’s life: Leave the student better than when you found them, so they can go forth and help someone else reach their dreams.
Vonnye was only one of seven black students to attend Austin High in 1962 and graduate in 1964. Things were difficult during those early 60s; sometimes the bus would pass her by, and sometimes teachers were not receptive to her explanations about her resulting tardiness. Yet despite these and other obstacles, her spirit was, and is today, optimistic. Vonnye says small kindnesses along the way, as well as life-long friendship with May Hamilton-Schmidt, from Austin High School, helped smooth the path among the turbulent years of the late 50s and early 60s. May and Vonnye are still friends to this day.
While working in education over the last 47 years, her first teaching experience was with the Ebenezer Child Development Center, and later with the Austin Independent School District. Vonnye has been with the Austin Community College District for the past 16 years and along with teaching as an Adjunct Professor for the Communications and Student Development Department, she also works as an Instructional Associate.
Vonnye has been at work changing lives in many communities. She participates in a project with the Travis County Historical Commission, where she organizes the Annual ACC Student Essay Contest and Exhibit, held at Eastview and Riverside Campuses. This empowering annual event, now in its fourth year, cultivates student’s writing and creative expression by having them write on an historical Austin subject and create pictorial displays as well. While they are researching, students discover threads about their own ancestor’s part in weaving the tapestry that would become Austin. Students walk away from this event with expanded pride, awareness, and self-expression.
Vonnye is the Vice President of the ARCIL Board – Austin Resource Center for Independent Living, a service which provides independent living services to persons with disabilities, their families and communities throughout Travis and surrounding counties. For example, a former student at ACC, has multiple myeloma – blood cancer, which is prevalent among African Americans and ARCIL helped her find a place to live. Vonnye recognizes the importance of getting the right resources to help people with disabilities become independent and enjoys working with ARCIL to make these connections a reality. She stays active in this community and attends conferences several times a year on the topic. In addition, Vonnye gives “disability training sessions” both nationally and locally. She has published articles spanning the topics of literacy, black heritage, curriculum development, teaching, history, and more.
Last year Vonnye wrote a narrative to get Holy Cross Catholic Church and Community an historical designation. More than a church, it has been a hospital and a school. The Texas Historical Commission has decided to award the building a plaque denoting its historical status.
“To know that things can change and the heart of man can change – that’s what’s important,” says this fourth-generation educator. Vonnye Rice Gardner’s pursuits have certainly been a change-maker in the lives of students, the disabled community, and many Austinites.