Skip to main content

Larnell Exum - Working on the Hill

by Regina Lightfoot -

As a boy growing up in the Liberty Park housing project and then Park Place in Norfolk, Virginia, Larnell B. Exum ’85 never dreamed that he would be leading Congressional delegations on fact-finding tours abroad. Exum, a Norfolk native and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, is the Director of Travel, Security and Facilities for the United States House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

A willingness to follow his passion and leverage his military service has brought Exum to where he is today, and has included serving the nation in the upper echelons of government — working on Capitol Hill with the U.S. Congress, in the Pentagon and even serving a U.S. President. 

But it all started with Norfolk State. 

Exum has had a lifelong love for Norfolk State, and it’s a love and a legacy that he continues to pass on.His mother, Eva Mae (Maryland) Exum; his sister, Brenda Exum, a retired Norfolk State professor; his brother, Edward Exum; and his twin brother, Darnell Exum; his sister’s in law, Senora Exum, deceased and Rosalyn Exum also attended Norfolk State. Now his nephew, Julian Exum attends. I have fond memories of running around the campus of Norfolk State College,” he said. “Frankly, it was the only school I ever thought of.” 

One of his fondest memories happened when he was about 14 years old. The memory has stayed with him because it gave him the opportunity to see up close one of the legends of black college football and an NFL legend in the making. “We would go to all of Norfolk State’s football games, to include going to see the Spartans play against Coach Eddie Robinson and the Grambling Tigers,” he recalled. Although the Spartans lost 26-0 before a crowd of nearly 34,000 in New York City’s Shea Stadium, Exum remembers who quarterbacked that day. “They had a quarterback that was decent — some guy by the name of Doug Williams,” he said wryly. Williams went on to quarterback for the Washington Redskins and set NFL records as he led the team to a 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos as the first African American quarterback to play in a Super Bowl.

Exum has carried the lessons he learned and the opportunities he received at Norfolk State with him throughout his career and his life. “You don’t attend a school that came into existence during the time of the Great Depression and not have that shape your thinking! Quitting was not an option for me! My parents sacrificed too much!” 

The lessons he’s kept included being told by professors that not only could NSU students compete with students from other colleges, but that they also were just as prepared or better prepared than those students. Whether as a member of the Spartan Legion Marching Band or the ROTC, it was a mantra that played out over and over again. “When I doubted my abilities, it was people like Mr. Emery Fears who saw something in me and allowed me — a marginally talented musician — to be a part of the band,” he recalled. After seeing combat in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Exum, who had been a political science major at Norfolk State, became the Military Assistant to the Under Secretary of the Army.

It was then he learned a piece of information that changed his career — as an Army officer he could serve as a legislative liaison and Congressional Fellow. “I vowed that one day, I was going to work on the Hill.” That vow has led him to serve on more than 60 fact-finding Congressional and staff delegation missions to more than 35 countries, a chance meeting and later a position as a U.S. deputy assistant secretary. “One quiet Saturday morning, I escorted the junior Senator from Illinois to Walter Reed to visit with an Air Force sergeant that had been medically evacuated from the Middle East,” Exum recounted.

“That senator was Barrack H. Obama.” Because the assignment went well, when Obama was elected President, Exum was offered a political appointment as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for House Affairs, supporting Congressional and White House initiatives. 

What advice would Exum give to Norfolk State students? “Find your passion and totally immerse yourself in it! Your GPA will either open or lock doors of opportunity. Be proud of being a Spartan! And, finally, be an active and financial alum!”


Click here to Support Norfolk State University