Remarks at Founders Day Convocation
General J. H. Binford Peay, III, Superintendent
11 November 2009
Mr. Allen, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, and ladies and gentlemen of the Corps of Cadets – welcome to this morning’s convocation marking the 170th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Military Institute. Mr. Allen, in a few moments the VMI Foundation will present you with their highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. On behalf of the entire Institute community and the Board of Visitors, I express our warmest thanks to you for your devotion to VMI and congratulate you on the high honor you are about to receive.
Before we begin these proceedings, however, a few words relevant to this day in the history of VMI and about the Founders and their vision for the Institute are in order. Since becoming Superintendent, I have taken this opportunity to briefly highlight some aspect of J. T. L. Preston’s well-known statement that appears on the Parapet in front of Washington Arch. Those words have stood the test of time as a statement of the vision, mission, and goals of the Institute,…words as inspiring and as valid now as they were when Preston wrote them in 1837 in defense of establishing VMI. Over the years on this special occasion, after an initial review in 2003 of the statement in its entirety, I have focused on such elements as Preston’s vision of “youths pressing up the hill of science”,…and the key to VMI’s distinction, the preparation of “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers.” Today I turn to another key element in his statement and in the life of the Institute, the vision of “a crowd of honorable youths.”
The commitment to personal honor as a necessary part of life at VMI was shared by all the Founders. It first appears in Preston’s statement “a crowd of honorable youths,” but it was also a constant theme of VMI’s first Superintendent, Francis H. Smith, and of others across the years. For example, Smith wrote, [and I quote] “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 institution itself. Dishonor on the part of one who wears the uniform of a cadet touches the reputation of all.” [end of quote] Honor remains a cornerstone of VMI, and will continue to be so into the future.
I think it is important for us to note that Smith spoke of the cadet code of honor as an “unwritten law for the inner life of a cadet,” written more on the mind and the heart than on a document. Years later, the VMI Honor Code was codified and published for the edification of all who wore the uniform, and an Honor Court was established, but in essence the concept of personal honor remained “unwritten.” A reflection of this can be found in the fact that today’s Honor Court, under the leadership of Cadet Weston Whitcomb, insists that “Honor is a lifestyle.” Honor at VMI is far more than a list of rules, do’s and don’t’s: it is a commitment to living an honorable life within an honorable community.
Sadly, society doesn’t speak of honor much these days, and honorable behavior seems scarce. Even here at VMI, the definition can occasionally shrink to the formula that “a cadet will not lie, steal, cheat, or tolerate those who do.” But that is not a definition of honor; it is a statement of what honor is not. And so we gladly return to Mr. Whitcomb and the court’s broader definition: “Honor is a lifestyle.”
In the nineteenth century, honor determined a person’s reputation in a community. The cadets and officers who lived in this place 170 years ago were deeply concerned with “public repute.” This is why Smith spoke of “the tone of public opinion among cadets.” When people described honor back then, they spoke of “moral uprightness,” “high mindedness,” “virtue,” “character,” “integrity,” “gentility”, even “self-restraint” and “self-discipline.” Some of those words may seem old-fashioned to us today, but the underlying concepts are as fresh and as important today as they were 170 years ago. Furthermore, ancient concepts of honor associated with military valor guided and inspired them then and guide us today. Our nation’s highest military decoration is the Medal of Honor.
Honor, then, is much more than a list of proscribed actions. Honor is a cluster of ethical rules by which behavior is accepted by a community. Honor determines a person’s membership in a community. Honor is the cement that holds the community together. Honor is based on trust. Honor resides in the individual and determines where he or she belongs in society.
This is the concept of honor that guides us at VMI.
There are many material signs of an individual’s success at VMI. The VMI diploma attests to the acquisition of an education and training for life’s work. A commission testifies to an individual’s commitment to service to the nation. And, the VMI ring indicates a person’s ability to meet a daunting challenge and emerge stronger for it. But there is an even more important sign, and it is not a material one. It is an inner sign, the sign of an honorable individual. It is the life-long commitment to personal honor, reinforced and deepened by the VMI experience. This sign is revealed in a graduate’s behavior and activities in the family, in the workplace, in society, and in the larger community of mankind. It is a sign that shines forth every day in small or great measure. In today’s world, honor appears to be in short supply, but this Institution is committed to being a community of honor, a national beacon on a hill. When VMI cadets graduate, they take honor into the world along with knowledge.
Remember, always ---- by this sign, this inner sign, people will know you to be VMI graduates.
Now it is my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Walter C. Perrin, VMI Class of 1962 and President of the VMI Foundation. 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, Walt joined IBM and spent nine years in sales and sales management. Then, 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 President of the Atlanta Chapter of the VMI Alumni Association and has been a member of the VMI Foundation Board for nine 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 occasion.
Please join me in welcoming the President of the VMI Foundation… Mr. Walt Perrin.