Remarks at Founders Day Convocation
GENERAL J. H. BINFORD PEAY, III
11 November 2010
Mr. Slater, members of the Board of Visitors, Foundation Trustees, Mr. Wilkinson, 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 171th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Military Institute. Mr. Wilkinson, in a few moments the VMI Foundation will present you, Sir, with their highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. On behalf of the entire Institute community, 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…, 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 in 2003, I have taken this opportunity to briefly highlight aspects of the 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.
On my first Founders Day as Superintendent in 2003, I took the opportunity to review Preston’s inspiring statement in its entirety. Since then, each year on this occasion, I have spoken of the connections that I see between the ideas contained in his statement and the goals of Vision 2039. In doing so, I have focused on: Preston’s vision of “youths pressing up the hill of science”; on the mission of VMI to prepare “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers”; on the widening of educational opportunity in Virginia that the founding of VMI represented; and, on the emphasis on personal honor that has served as the keystone to the VMI experience. Today, 2010, I turn to what the founders, and especially General Francis H. Smith, our first Superintendent, meant when they spoke of “being educated.”
This topic is especially meaningful this morning as we prepare to honor Mr. Wilkinson as he not only served with distinction on the Academic Committee of the Board of Visitors during his time on the board, but he is also one of the creators and overseers of the Jackson-Hope Fund that supports innovation and excellence in the academic programs of the Institute. Furthermore, as I said, this is the beginning of the 171st year of the Institute, and it was in 1871 that Superintendent Smith delivered an introductory lecture on the resumption of academic exercises at VMI that laid out what he meant by “being educated.” The ideas he expressed continue to guide and describe the academic program of the Institute.
Smith’s definition of education was a classic one, one advanced by the Greeks in ancient times and by the great English poet Milton in more recent times. Although it was a classic ideal of education, it remains just as valid and fresh today as it did when he described it. “Education,” Smith said, “has reference to the whole man (and we would now add woman).” What did he mean by this? He meant that education is something that works on the body, the mind, and the heart of an individual. Some have described this approach to education as giving young people “a complete education,” an education that produces a healthy and vigorous body, intellectual power, and moral strength and virtue. According to Smith, “The educated person is not the warrior, nor the scholar, nor the upright man alone, but a just and well-balanced combination of all these.”
The title of his 1871 lecture may seem odd to us. It was titled… “Gymnastic and Technical Education in the Virginia Military Institute.” But recognizing the importance he placed on vigor, activity, and health, it becomes clear why he chose that title. “Physical education constitutes the beginning of cadet life,” Smith said. For him, physical education was the foundation of strength, vigor, good health, and even grace. And good health, in his opinion, was the foundation for a vigorous mind. Smith was proud of the physical development of VMI cadets after even as little as a year of such activity, and still more after the completion of their four years at the Institute. Among college students of those years, it was an unusual accomplishment.
In his address to cadets, Smith then went on to discuss what he meant by technical education. This was his description of the kind of education that he believed was needed in the world of his day and for the future, and the very kind of education he believed VMI was offering. By technical education, he did not mean a narrow emphasis on science and engineering, but an education that aims to fit a student for his special pursuit or profession in life. Today, we would probably call it “practical education.”
Smith, who had traveled in Europe before the Civil War, was aware of remarkable advances taking place in science and industry in France, Germany, and Switzerland. These advances came as the Industrial Revolution was spreading over the Continent of Europe. More importantly, along with these changes Smith observed first-hand new approaches to education and training. What Smith did not see was a similar development in England or the United States, societies which clung to more traditional educational models. He concluded that England and the United States were falling behind its new competitors on the Continent, and that a restructuring of higher education was one of the pressing requirements of the day. What Smith saw was something like what the West is seeing today as it regards developments in Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Smith warned that the United States should pay attention to developments in Europe and make changes necessary to meet the competition.
At the end of his lecture, Smith turned to VMI, which he always regarded as striving to be at the forefront of a change in higher education. The aim of the Virginia Military Institute, he said, is … “to cultivate the powers of the mind as to give a practical direction to them.”
The more we look at the founders of this college, the more we see that they were “forward-looking” men who envisioned an important place for VMI in a rapidly developing nation and in a rapidly developing and changing technological world. The crisis of the Civil War nearly wrecked those dreams, but through the persistence of Smith and his colleagues, the Institute was rebuilt and rededicated to preparing young men for the modern world... Next year will be the centennial of the birth of Col. J. T. L. Preston, who was the first to argue for the creation of VMI, and the following year, 2012, will be the centennial of the birth of Gen. Francis H. Smith, who took Preston’s dream, made it a reality, and laid the foundation on which much of today’s Institute has been built.
Today, on this Founders Day…, we honor them for what they created and for the legacy they have left us…, a legacy of overcoming monumental challenges while always looking to the future as something filled with opportunity and promise. Some would say that their actions define what we mean by “the Spirit of VMI.” I could not be more proud of the Corps of Cadets and our Faculty and Staff on this “special day” in our long and distinguished history.
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. His father, David Perrin, graduated in the VMI Class of 1925. After serving two years in the United States Army, Mr. Perrin 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 numerous members of their family and we extend a warm welcome to them on this occasion.
Please join me in welcoming the President of the VMI Foundation… Mr. Walt Perrin.