Remarks to the Institute Society
9 November 2006
Ladies and gentlemen of the Institute Society On behalf of the faculty, staff, and cadets of the Institute - representatives of whom are seated at many of your tables - I extend a warm welcome to you this evening. We, at the Institute, enjoy our time together with you: to renew old friendships, to make new friends, and to celebrate together the progress of our school on the eve of it's 167th anniversary. Wouldn't the Founders be proud, if they could be here with us tonight, to see the results of their vision, planning, hard work, and dedication.
Founders Day at any college has a very special meaning and a very special purpose, and it is no different for us at VMI. On the one hand, it is a time to look back at the rich history of our Institute and to the ideas and principles on which it was built and which have sustained it over the years, through good times and bad, through periods of peace and periods of war. On the other hand, it is also a time to look forward to the promise and the challenges of the future, for VMI has always been an institution that has kept its eye on things to come. I think I can say without fear of contradiction, that VMI as a college has been more closely tied to the large events of this nation and the world than most ivy-covered institutions of higher education because so many of our graduates leave here to serve immediately as "citizen-soldiers". The knowledge of that colors and influences the lives of our cadets during their four years here, and it influences the life of the Institute.
Because VMI has been so successful, we are tempted to believe that its success was a foregone conclusion from the very start. In my reading of VMI's early days, nothing could be further from the truth. VMI was an experiment, and an experiment that did not receive widespread support throughout the Commonwealth. People had doubts about the formal teaching of engineering and science in a college setting at a time when most colleges confined their teaching to the humanities, the classics, and theology. Even greater doubts were expressed about the possibility and even the desirability of offering a college course within a military environment. For some, the VMI system seemed too structured, too confining, and too conformist. Writers, educators, and other college professors around the Commonwealth said that it could not be done, it would not work, and that it could not succeed. This only enhances our admiration for the Founders - J. T. L. Preston, Claudius Crozet, and Francis H. Smith - as well as for those other early professors - who ignored the doubters and pressed ahead. We often overlook this doubting and critical environment in which the seeds of VMI were planted, took root, and finally flourished. We often overlook the fact that our Founders were risk-takers, educational non-conformists, visionaries, andeminently practical men.
At the same time, we must also remember that their practical bent was always tempered by the preeminent importance they placed upon the formation of character. In this way, too, the Founders were thoroughly modern. Character education was the latest thing in the early nineteenth century, in England and in the United States. In designing the educational program at VMI, Smith and others were careful not to lose sight of this important purpose. In 1859, Smith wrote that special care had been taken to avoid a narrow, purely practical purpose that would "lose sight of the true object of education as designed to develop the mental and moral faculties."
I underscore these themes briefly this evening for a very specific purpose. I think we must continually remind ourselves that as old and venerable as the Institute has become, it started out as a bright new institution of higher education dedicated to the needs and challenges of the future -- an institution to train, educate, and mold young people for a world that was rapidly being transformed. This was true and appropriate then, and it remains true and appropriate now, in a world today that continues to be transformed but at an ever-quickening pace. All of these ideas are captured so well in the words of J. T. L. Preston affixed to the Parapet and known to all cadets and alumni: "a crowd of honorable youths," "pressing up the hill of science,"and "fair specimens of citizen-soldiers."
In short, the Founders established this Institute on the foundation of honor, belief in progress, science, academic achievement, character building, constructive competition, public service, and military service. All these concepts are contained in Preston's statement on the Parapet and they are as fresh, as meaningful, and as compelling today as they were 167 years ago, and I believe that they will be so when we reach our 200th anniversary in 2039.
But,for institutions to become truly great, it is not enough to have inspired, visionary, dedicated pioneers and founders. Others must come along to "translate their vision and ideals into action and practice". At VMI, much of that has taken place and continues to take place in the classroom, performed by thoughtful, dedicated, and devoted teachers. The pages of VMI history are filled with references to professors who have carried the torch. I have the great privilege this evening of welcoming as our speaker such a person: Colonel Thomas W. Davis, Class of 1964, a veteran of 35 years of service as a Professor of Historyand the son of William Webster Davis, VMI Class of 1934.
If anyone can be said to carry the torch of the high ideals of VMI, it is Colonel Tom Davis. Like other notable VMI persons in the past - Colonels Anderson, Couper, Heflin, Dillard, and General Morganimmediately come to mind -- Tom has been an important source of continuity in the life of the Institute. He clearly absorbed its ideals, history, and traditions as a cadet, and he has carried them forward to this moment. Even though he is about to retire, I am pleased that he will continue to teach a course on the history of VMI. In a college like VMI, blessed with such a rich tradition, it is people like Colonel Davis who insure that the tradition is not lost.
Tom has accomplished and contributed so much to the life of the Institute, that it would take the entire evening to do justice to his remarkable record of service. But if you ask him what he is most proud of, he will answer modestly that it has been the opportunity to have taught VMI cadets for three and a half decades. In appreciation for this, the Institute awarded him the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1987. His great talent as a teacher was recognized by his being awarded the General Edwin Cox Chair from 1992 to 1997.
I also mention his service as Chairman of the VMI Athletic Council for fourteen years and his service as President of the Southern Conference during its 75th anniversary celebration in 1996. As we all know, Tom's keen and deep interest in VMI athletics led him to write and publish a comprehensive athletic history in 1986 entitled The Corps Roots the Loudest. It is the definitive history of the subject, perhaps to be updated but never to be replaced. That contribution to the athletic side of VMI was matched by his service to the cadet life side as adviser to the VMI Cadet and service on the Hop Committee. Since 1976, he has "advised" the first classman elected to be valedictoriancounseling temperament and good judgment to the relief of many Superintendents and - when the call came - he served as VMI's first Associate Dean of the Faculty in 1988 and as Acting Dean during VMI's sesquicentennial year of 1989-1990. For his services to the Institute, VMI awarded him its Distinguished Service Award in 1986, and that distinguished service has continued unabated, always supported and assisted by his wife Helen, whose dedication to the Institute equals that of her husband.
As I hinted, there is much, much more that could be said about Colonel Tom Davis. His list of publications fill several pages, and his participation in scholarly conferences and meetings is lengthy. But, continuing this tribute would only "rob us" of the opportunity to listen to Tom this evening. Please join me in welcoming VMI's distinguished History Professor and Historian, Col. Thomas W. Davis, VMI Class 1964.