Remarks at Founders Day Convocation
9 November 2012
General J.H. Binford Peay, III
Mayor Fraim; members of the Board of Visitors; Mr. Jeffress; Foundation Trustees; Mr. Slater; members of the Academic Board; faculty and staff, and ladies and gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets. Welcome to this morning’s convocation marking the 173rd anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Military Institute. Mr. Slater, in a few moments the VMI Foundation will present you with its highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. On behalf of the entire Institute community, I congratulate you on the high honor you are about to receive and thank you for your devotion and exceptional service to the Institute.
Before we begin these proceedings… I would like to say a few words relevant to this day in the history of VMI, and about the Founders and their vision for the Institute. I like to think that it is not a coincidence that our three founders, in their careers, reflect the three major academic areas of emphasis of the Institute. Col. Claudius Crozet was an engineer; Gen. Francis H. Smith was a mathematician and, Col. J. T. L. Preston was a teacher of Latin (representing the Liberal Arts). All three served in the military: Crozet, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, served in the army of Napoleon; Smith, a West Point graduate, served in the US and Confederate army; and Preston, a graduate of Washington College, served in the Confederate army. In addition, importantly, all three, at one time, were teachers.
These three men represent different academic disciplines, but they had one characteristic in common: they were men who looked to the future with confidence, not only for the new college that they had helped to establish and which they organized, but also for the nation, which was entering the early phase of the Industrial Revolution. There were canals, turnpikes, railroads, bridges, and communities to build, and they believed that educated young men – graduates of the Virginia Military Institute – would contribute significantly to that work and to the benefit and welfare of their fellow citizens. The times were not entirely auspicious, however, as the nation was just emerging from a deep recession that began in 1837 and serious conflicts over social and political ideas were driving a wedge between the north and the south that would ultimately be resolved by a catastrophic Civil War. And yet…, the Founders had faith and hope that reason would win out and that the larger work of building a nation would prevail over sectionalism.
Despite the war that came in 1861, and the near complete destruction of the Institute that Crozet, Smith, and Preston had labored so hard to nurture and promote, VMI was rebuilt and the vision articulated by the Founders for the Institute returned. Slowly, across many years, VMI grew in stature from a regional college to a national and finally an internationally recognized institution of higher education. We might even say that the dream of the Founders was finally realized. But, perhaps we could be wrong.
What VMI has attained, impressive and important as it has been, is no measure of this institution’s potential. Much has been accomplished, but there is much left to be accomplished. Like the Founders, we are optimistic for what VMI is capable of becoming in a changing world. This unique community of educators, mentors, administrators, and students are capable of even greater accomplishments than those we now celebrate as we look back over 173 years.
This past decade has been devoted largely to creating an environment -- physical, cultural, and academic – on which to build a stronger and more effective Institute – while not forgetting entirely the words of J. T. L. Preston when he called for creating, “a healthful and pleasant abode of a crowd of honorable youths.” As impressive as these new facilities and programs may be, however, they are just the preface to much greater accomplishments to come. The decade that stretches out before us – call it, “On the 10 Year Horizon” – is promising, indeed. Clearly, VMI’s national academic reputation will continue to grow; the Institute will pass through a successful Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation or reaffirmation five years from now; the endowment, so vital to VMI’s continued margin of excellence, will grow with a new Campaign; rising costs of education, athletics, and infrastructure will present a challenge, but one that VMI will “meet” through state support and the support of its loyal alumni and other friends and admirers…; in athletics, VMI will continue winning the VMI way and maintain its strong NCAA accreditation and Division I status; new facilities, such as the Corps Indoor Physical Training complex, will further strengthen our cadet development programs and offer new and exciting opportunities. And, many cadets will continue to raise their right hand at graduation and commission in the armed services. No doubt there will be many challenges ahead: environmental, cultural, social, technological, and legal. But VMI will meet them as it has met challenges in the past, and – while keeping its “uniqueness” – will provide the kind of education young men and women will need…(and the Corps wants)…to succeed in an ever-changing environment.
VMI’s potential is not only to create an institution that enriches the lives of cadets who pass through its halls, but – through them -- to improve and enrich the lives of men and women across this nation and around the world well into the future. A school producing men and women uniquely prepared and devoted, in addition to its competencies…, to leadership and service – those are our clear and admired credentials.
It is now my distinct pleasure to introduce Mr. Walton M. Jeffress, Jr., VMI Class of 1968, the 21st president of the VMI Foundation, Inc., who will introduce today’s honoree.
Mr. Jeffress, as a cadet, was a civil engineering major, a member of the track and cross-country teams, and a Distinguished Military Graduate. After graduating, he began studies at Washington and Lee University Law School, but also served as a sub-professor in the VMI Department of Civil Engineering.
He served for 20 years in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and for the past 23 years has practiced law in Virginia. He joined the VMI Foundation’s Board of Trustees in July 2003 and has served on numerous committees including the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee. He was named President of the VMI Foundation on 1 July 2011.
Please join me in welcoming a friend and loyal and most gracious alumnus, Mr. Walton M. Jeffress.