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Novelist Jeff Shaara Helps Preserve and Present VMI's History

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 Since his first book, Gods and Generals, published in 1996, Jeff Shaara has been a fixture on national bestseller lists. His historical novels include a trilogy about World War II in Europe and two books concerning the American Revolution. His latest novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh, marks his return to the Civil War—and the beginning of a trilogy about the Civil War’s western theater.

For more than a dozen years, Mr. Shaara has supported efforts to preserve and present VMI’s extraordinary heritage. Recently, he spoke about this sustained support.

Why do you give to VMI?

My relationship with VMI started in 1995 when I came to Lexington to research my first book. I fell in love with the entire area. Furthermore, some great people, especially Keith Gibson, the Director of VMI Museums, and the late John Elrod, president of Washington and Lee, were very helpful to me.

You are known for supporting of the Jackson Battery’s preservation. Why did that project attract you?

In 1998, I was walking on the Parade Ground with Keith Gibson near the Battery. Keith picked up a piece of metal from one of the guns from off the ground and said, “It’s an embarrassment.”

I agreed, and, later that night, I asked him how much it would cost to replace the carriages. He told me $30,000, and, not longer after, I provided the money. When a couple of very hard winters caused the new carriages to deteriorate much sooner than anticipated, I was happy to give the funds to replace them.

As to why I do it, it’s simple: I am giving back to VMI for all that its people have done for me. Furthermore, I am paying a tribute to Stonewall Jackson. These guns, which he used to teach artillery tactics to cadets, sit under Jackson’s statue across from Jackson Arch and within sight of his classroom.

Finally, the plaque at the Battery acknowledges my involvement, and that is one of the nicest things that anyone has done for me.

Your signature project is the Shaara New Market Battlefield Scholar-in-Residence Program. Tell us about that, please.

I was fishing around for something more to do for VMI, and someone at the VMI Foundation suggested some sort of work-study program. It developed into the current program in which a cadet is paid a stipend, works ten weeks at the Battlefield in uniform, and also receives a signed hardcover version of my Civil War trilogy that includes my father’s classic, The Killer Angels.

I like that cadets work and study at the New Market Battlefield. That “hands-on” aspect gives them a much more valuable experience to carry into the future. Having a cadet at the Battlefield also enriches visitors’ experiences by allowing them to meet a current member of the same Corps of Cadets that showed such courage in May 1864.

I rarely endow anything, preferring to give to meet an immediate need, but I know I did the right thing with this program because I have received a very nice letter of thanks from every cadet who has participated in the fellowship.

You mentioned that the Shaara Program enriches visitors’ experiences. Why it is important for people to visit battlefields?

Speaking broadly, museums are all well and good. However, just like a zoo is not a jungle, a museum is not a battlefield. In recent years, an improved awareness of battlefields’ importance has developed. We agree that if we lose those places, we lose connections with the past. And, if we lose those connections, we lose sight of who we are as a nation.

Any final thoughts on your support of VMI?

Yes, I hope people understand that my support of VMI is not a way of me saying, “Hooray for me!” I have been fortunate, and I know that I did not accomplish what I have by myself. So, it’s my way of saying “Thanks.”

Finally, my commitment to VMI is ongoing, and I want to continue it because VMI is a special place as is its hometown of Lexington. It simply is great to be involved with such an institution.