Remarks at the Founders Day Convocation
9 November 2007
Distinguished Guests, Faculty and Staff, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets -- welcome to this afternoon’s convocation marking the 168th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Military Institute... Senator Norment, in a few moments the VMI Foundation will present you with their highest award…and on behalf of the Institute and the Board of Visitors, we also want to congratulate you and thank you for your leadership and service to the Commonwealth and particularly for your devotion to VMI. Your assistance, advice, loyalty, and friendship have directly impacted our advancement and we are most grateful.
This day and this ceremony give us the opportunity to look back at the rich history of this Institute and to look forward to the promise and the challenges of the future. VMI has always been an institution that has kept its eye on things to come.
Perhaps to a higher degree than many other colleges, at VMI we try to maintain a strong tie between what we have been and what we are becoming. And the way we maintain that strong tie and continuity is to preserve the high ideals and principles that have guided and sustained this community over the years…, through good times and bad…, through periods of peace and periods of war. As the decades have rolled along and conditions in society have changed, we have not only preserved but expanded our ideals and principles to be more inclusive and supportive of societal, state, and national policies and goals. Consequently, the Institute has become stronger, more responsive to the needs of the times, more beneficial to society, and truer to the spirit of its fundamental ideals and principles.
And what are those ideals and principles? For the answer, on this special day celebrating our founding, it is appropriate that we turn to the Founders. The first has been a fundamental commitment to educational “opportunity,” to providing higher education to as broad a population as possible. The Founders spoke of “widening the doors” to education by creating a school where “opportunities are offered” and “an education is given … to those who are willing to help themselves.” Happily, this principle has been expanded over the years to enable the Institute to provide educational opportunity to young men and young women of all races, creeds, and beliefs from across the nation and now across the world. This was a cornerstone of the argument used in 1837 to promote the founding of the Institute, and J. T. L. Preston expressed it best, when he wrote, “the intelligence and virtue of the common people, is the hope of Liberty.”
A second basic principle has been the commitment to a “liberal” education. For the Founders, this meant a broad, useful, and modern education designed to prepare students for “the varied work of civil society.” Preston, as a professor of Latin, emphasized the need for classes in that subject as preparation for careers in medicine and law, and the need for a thorough education in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and the military arts. “This does not comprise the drill of a complete education,” he wrote, “but it is sufficiently liberal to enable a young man to prosecute it further, unassisted, or creditably to enter upon the study of any of the learned professions.” For the Founders, the idea of a liberal education involved incorporating the study of science and engineering into a curriculum that heretofore had emphasized classical studies almost exclusively. This direction is reflected in many of the writings of Superintendent Francis H. Smith, and especially when he wrote the following in 1851: “What, then, is there to prevent this institution from becoming a great school of applied science for our state and for the whole country? The line of duty seems plainly marked out before it; the field is open and unoccupied; and the command comes with significance at this time – GO FORWARD,” he said. Several days after the opening of the Institute on 11 November 1839, Col. Claudius Crozet, the first president of the Board of Visitors, wrote to the Governor of Virginia to assure him that VMI would “procure [to the state] every year a number of talented young men, engineers and soldiers, ready to serve her usefully in case of need, and it will promote and diffuse a knowledge of military science….”
Which leads us to the third basic principle: military education and the preparation of what the Founders called “scientific officers.” This emphasis grew, of course, from the circumstances of the founding of the Institute as a replacement for the Public Guard and the transformation of the Lexington Arsenal into an institution for the education of youths. The military feature had two purposes: one for the operation of the Institute and the other for service to the state. “We would have the whole Guard or School under military discipline,” wrote J. T. L. Preston, “not only to secure the objects of the State in establishing this military post, but likewise that industry, regularity, and health might be promoted.” Preston went on to state that the goal of the system he was promoting was to graduate “… young men [who] would annually leave the institution with highly respectable attainments in literature and science, with a through acquaintance with the practice of the military art, and considerable insight into the principles of the science of war.” In other words, the production of “Citizen-Soldiers.”
The final fundamental principle that I will mention this morning is the principle of honor. In arguing for a change in the Arsenal from a Public Guard to a Corps of Cadets, Preston answered those who doubted the ability of young people to undertake such a strenuous task. He wrote, “… To us, moral qualification appears much more important than physical power…. We would not hesitate to prefer … a corps composed of virtuous, educated, honorable young men, in whom would be found that incorruptible integrity, and that spirit of patriotism more valuable than the size and strength of grenadiers.” In fact, honor was the keystone of the edifice the Founders were building: it mattered more than any other consideration. Once, when addressing the Corps of Cadets upon the resumption of studies in 1866, Superintendent Smith put it this way: “This it is which serves to establish and maintain in this institution, as a military school, to a higher degree, perhaps, than in any other, a tone of public opinion among the cadets, a code of honor, which constitutes the unwritten law for the inner life of a cadet, no less potential than the specific rules of the institute itself. Dishonor on the part of a cadet touches the reputation of all…”
Today, on this 168th anniversary of the founding of the Institute, I can say with confidence that the fundamental principles I have mentioned continue to guide and inspire us at VMI. And, as in the past, they continue to expand to encompass our needs and the changing needs of society, which we serve. As part of “Vision 2039,” for example, we are strengthening our commitment to science and engineering education so as to insure that our curriculum is balanced and truly “liberal,” in the traditional sense of that word. In order to offer the opportunity of a VMI education to more young people…, we are constructing a new barracks next to the existing barracks complex. We have remodeled and improved many of our academic buildings to support the requirements of a modern educational program. And in order to better accomplish the military mission of the Institute and encourage more of our cadets to pursue commissions in the Regular and Reserve components of our military, we are expanding and improving the ROTC buildings along Main Street. In addition, we have undertaken a massive reconstruction of our athletic facilities on what I am convinced is the cusp of a decade of athletic success….and in support of the concepts of fitness and leadership. And, most importantly, the VMI Code of Honor continues to inspire, guide, and govern the lives of our cadets…and each of us. An “aspect of honor” is the important concept of civility, a concept that will play a central role in the programs that will be offered through the new Leadership and Ethics Center under construction behind Smith Hall.
We are making progress, and much of the fabric of VMI is being transformed…, but the principles remain and are stronger than ever. And once we have reached our goals for these programs and their supporting facilities… we will pursue yet another fresh approach to insure VMI’s relevancy in a dynamic world environment…, because VMI must “continue to more forward”, as Smith so wisely stated over one hundred years ago. As we move from Founders Day to Founders Day, it will be my pleasure to report to you on that progress.
Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Walter C. Perrin, VMI Class of 1962 and President of the VMI Foundation. Mr. Perrin was just elected (this morning) to this important leadership role succeeding Mr. Bob Philpott who passed away 6 October. Many of you know that the Philpott family has long and deep ties with the Institute and our prayers are with them during this difficult time.
Mr. Perrin is a second generation graduate in Electrical Engineering and holds a Masters of Business Administration from Georgia State University. His father, David Perrin, graduated in the VMI Class of 1925. After serving two years in the United States Army, he joined IBM, spending nine years in sales and sales management. For 29 years, he worked for McKesson Corporation, a major healthcare distribution and information technology company, where he served in sales and marketing, retiring as Senior Vice President of McKesson in 2006.
Mr. Perrin has served as the President of the Atlanta Chapter of the VMI Alumni Association and has been a member of the VMI Foundation Board for seven years. In addition, he has held numerous leadership positions at St. Luke Episcopal Church and has been involved with a number of civic organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America.
With him today is his wife, Mary, and we extend a warm welcome to her on this special occasion.
In the 1962 BOMB you will find the following written by his classmates:… “Walt Perrin… The name will bring the memory of a tall, bespeckled, young man with a big smile and a friendly hello to everyone he meets. He is a young man who has exhibited an enormous capacity for work, whether academically or militarily. He held rank for three years and was one of the hardest working members of the swimming team. In the academic line, he devoted much time and energy to his lessons.”
Please join me in welcoming this “young and energetic” member of the Class of 1962, and President of the VMI Foundation…Mr. Walt Perrin.