Remarks at Commencement Ceremony
16 May 2008
Secretary Gates, Mr. Minor, Members of the VMI Board of Visitors, Members of the Academic Board, Faculty and Staff, families and friends of today’s graduating Cadets, members of the Corps of Cadets…, “welcome” to Commencement for the Class of 2008.
I am very pleased to welcome to this ceremony the Honorable Robert M. Gates, Secretary of Defense, who will address our graduating class. Secretary Gates will be “formally” introduced in a few moments; however, I want to take this opportunity to extend my personal welcome. These are momentous and dangerous times for our nation, and we are keenly aware that much of the responsibility for ensuring that our nation remains strong, prepared, and capable of meeting those challenges and threats rest upon his shoulders. The entire VMI family, Sir, thanks you for your years of dedicated service to our country’s defense and for your distinguished career at the CIA.
After a long career of public service, Dr. Gates received a call from Texas A&M University in 2002 to serve as its president. (Yesterday, VMI celebrated the Battle of New Market, and it’s “implications” for our future. Two former VMI graduates who fought at New Market – Corporals Dinwiddie and James – “later” were Presidents of this great Texas A&M University). President Bush (then) called on him to become our Nation’s Secretary of Defense…; and Dr. Gates quietly relinquished his university post and returned to Washington and to the nation’s service. This generous decision reminds us of another great American who selflessly and repeatedly answered the call of his nation: General George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901.
Mr. Secretary, we are honored by your presence today. Thank you!
This morning 246 cadets will receive the Bachelor of Arts degree or the Bachelor of Science degree, and 129 have been commissioned as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. These accomplishments mark the successful completion of a rigorous four-year course of study, training, and the development of qualities essential to a VMI cadet: honor, character, and self-discipline.
One thing that all VMI graduates can agree upon, is that the rigorous and demanding experience of a four year VMI education cannot be accomplished alone. Many have contributed to the success of today’s graduates: parents and guardians, friends, Brother Rats, faculty, staff, coaches, and host families, to name but a few. VMI particularly thanks the parents for encouraging and sustaining their sons/ and daughters throughout these cadet years. May I ask parents to please stand and receive our thanks…And now, perhaps those “most responsible”…I ask the grandparents to please stand.
Universities and colleges are many things to many people, but at the heart of any great institution of higher education is its faculty. They are the ones who teach, they guide, counsel, and encourage young people on a “day-to-day” basis. I include in this group our military staff and those who coach our young athletes…, for at VMI we believe that the academic and the physical aspects make for a “full and complete” education. May I ask you now to express your thanks to the Institute’s faculty.
52.4% of the Class of 2008 took their commissioning oath yesterday and received the rank of second lieutenants or ensigns. And, more will shortly commission thru our nation’s OCS program. That percentage, in time of war, is especially commendable and reinforces VMI’s historic mission of producing Citizen-Soldiers. Many VMI cadets, staff, and faculty have been called to active duty in support of the current war on terror, thus placing their lives and cadetships temporarily on hold. Regretfully, the Institute has also lost graduates. There are parents and family members – and others in the audience this morning – who have served as well. Would “all of you”… “patriots” who have served in this current war on terrorism please stand and receive our appreciation for your service.
I thank the Class of 2008 for its leadership and all that you have accomplished this year. Matriculation in August 2007, and the weeks that followed were a success, thanks to the “professionalism” of your cadre and your class. The 9-day orientation period, the Cadet Oath ceremony at New Market Battlefield, the trip to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, the Rat Line, concluding with a Breakout that “reconnected”, historically, to VMI’s fame by concluding with the 20 mile march to New Market and battlefield charge, were all conducted in a “professional manner” and “perhaps” contributed to the lowest overall attrition in a decade of the Rat Class.
When one looks back…, I predict many will see a real change in the athletic success at the Institute…, commencing a decade of “winning” across all sports. Your class’s strong performance in building that foundation, will be realized…; now, I’m not sure how Mo’s “theatrics” will be replicated…? or “who” will be the next Mo? Your class certainly must be proud that a VMI classmate led the nation in scoring in basketball the past two years.
I also commend you on your “patience”. Over your four years at the Institute, there has been an unprecedented change to the physical plant with corresponding disruptions. Although you will graduate before you are able to use and enjoy many of these new facilities, I am sure you recognize the favorable impact on VMI’s future of providing an outstanding education to generations of cadets to come. And…I close this quick “panoramic” by congratulating you on your academic achievements…: numerous scholar-athletes; leaders nationally in undergraduate research; impressive graduate school attendance, and, an incredible number of top-tier academic awards.
The lessons you have learned at VMI and the habits you have developed will remain with you and guide you throughout your life. Remain true to them. Hold onto the concept of “honor” that is the foundation stone of VMI. Seek ways to serve your community and your nation. And, as you enter into the next phase of your life, I encourage you to pursue as your life’s work something that you feel “passionately” about --- something that will use your special talents and abilities, something that will help you to grow mentally and spiritually, and something that will help you to realize your dreams. Use your talents to their utmost…, but also continue to look deep inside yourself … to develop new talents, new knowledge, and new directions. Commencement is not a “stop sign” on the road of life; it is but a “marker” on the long, long road ahead.
And, finally, … I ask you to remain “connected” to the Institute. Wear your ring proudly…; display your diploma, and remember at all times that you are “VMI graduates.”… People will hold you to a higher standard because you are a VMI graduate. This is the legacy that has been passed on to you by other graduating classes. It is now your heritage, and, I am very confident that you will pass it on to others.
Armed with knowledge, and skill…, honor, and character – you now move “boldly” forward.
On behalf of the Institute and its Alumni, I extend to you our sincerest congratulations on your accomplishment and best wishes for all that surely will come your way.
It is now my honor to introduce the Valedictorian for the Class of 2008…Cadet Jesse Brown Burnette, a History Major from Marion, North Carolina. Mr. Burnette is academically distinguished; he wore academic stars throughout his cadetship and will graduate as a Distinguished Military Student. Yesterday he was commissioned as an infantry officer in the United States Army. He was a member of the VMI Rifle Team for two years and this year was the Executive Officer for E Company... Mr. Burnette.