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Learning the Lifestyle, Self-Selecting for Success

FullTextImage/img/@altCol. Keith Gibson '77 addresses prospective cadets and their parents during an open house event. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

History Presentation Acquaints Prospective Cadets with Prestige of Institute

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 31, 2013 – Who wouldn’t want to go to a school that could count among its graduates a brilliant statesman, a fearless explorer, and a civil rights martyr, just to name a few?

That’s the message Col. Keith E. Gibson ’77, executive director of the museum system, spreads in a 30-minute talk on the history of VMI during open house visits for prospective cadets. And while Gibson’s talk began some six to eight years ago as an optional activity, it’s become so popular that it is now a standard part of the program, explained Col. Vern Beitzel ’72, director of admissions.

“The history of VMI is important and we want to incorporate that,” said Beitzel. “His presentation sets the stage for the whole weekend.”

During a recent open house Gibson took the stage in Gillis Theater to talk about how the past and present combine to make VMI, the oldest state-supported military college in the nation, a unique offering in American higher education.

“It’s a lifestyle that you ... [assume] while you are here,” said Gibson, who accompanied his talk with a series of slides showing both famous people and notable moments in the Institute’s 174-year history.

Gibson began his remarks by explaining that VMI wasn’t even built with education in mind – protection was instead the goal when an arsenal was established in Lexington, then an outpost on the raw western frontier, in the early 1800s.

After introducing the trinity of giants overseeing VMI’s early years – J.T.L. Preston, Claudius Crozet, and Francis H. Smith – Gibson turned his attention to a fourth, and often overlooked, personage: architect Alexander Jackson Davis, who designed VMI’s first buildings in the Gothic Revival style that remains the Institute’s signature motif to this day.

“Gothic Revival architecture is upward moving, vertical, aspiring to height, sturdy, and unadorned,” the museum director commented. “All of those things are metaphors for the cadet experience here.”

After noting that VMI did not admit non-Virginians to the Corps until the late 1850s, Gibson moved on to talk about a seminal moment in the Institute’s history, and one that underscores its collective consciousness to this day: when 257 VMI cadets took to the battlefield at New Market on May 15, 1864, and defeated the Union forces there. Ten cadets died, and many more were wounded.

Moving into the 20th century, Gibson introduced George C. Marshall, class of 1901 – a cadet whose elder brother, also a VMI graduate, had discouraged from matriculating, saying that George would never be able to stand up the rigors of VMI. The younger Marshall went on to graduate at the top of his class.

“He’s known as the architect of victory in World War II,” said Gibson of Marshall, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Addressing the prospective cadets, Gibson asked, “If you wear his coatee, where will it take you?”

Next, Gibson showed a group of cadets dressed to go spelunking, and among the group was none other than Richard Evelyn Byrd, VMI class of 1908, who would go on to become the first man to fly over both the North and South poles.

Gibson also spoke at length about Jonathan Daniels ’61, who took a fatal gunshot wound so a young African-American girl would not have to die during the civil rights struggle in Alabama in 1965. Daniels is one of only two Americans recognized in the chapel of martyrs at Westminster Cathedral in England, Gibson noted. The other is Martin Luther King Jr.

But as much as Gibson’s presentation was about the past, it was also about the future – in the form of the future cadets. Throughout his talk, Gibson spoke of VMI as a place where future leaders are groomed to take their place in the world, wherever that place might be.

“There is no limit to the opportunities you might have [at VMI],” said Gibson. “VMI is a self-selecting sort of place. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t consider yourself to be a leader.”

– Mary Price

-VMI-