Address, Jonathan Daniels '61 Ceremony
Given by Lou Siegel '65, March 6, 2013
I am here today because I have come to question why I did not have a better awareness of the human rights situations unfolding around me when I was much younger. Closer to your age. Col. Strickler, who is the executive assistant to Gen. Peay,
invited me to speak. He has been kind to spend time talking with me, discussing VMI’s programs that concern these matters and providing data. I have expressed a continued interest in the demographics of the Corps as they relate to race, gender and ethnicity. I
have also expressed continuing interest in the very successful Center for Leadership and Ethics, and in leadership and how it is defined, taught and practiced. Today, I would like to relate some of my experiences, and introduce to you, early in your VMI
experience, a career path somewhat out of the mainstream.
As a young person, as a cadet, I was barely aware of civil rights issues. The first black cadet entered as a 4th classman three years after I graduated; the first woman, 32 years after. I went to high school in Petersburg, Virginia, but the fact that the city was
predominantly African-American just did not register. Over 75 percent of the population was black and I didn’t know it. I went to a segregated high school and hadn’t the faintest idea there was even another high school. I am appalled with myself when I think back on this.
I had friends at the time who were aware, who were interested in these human rights issues. Recently, I decided to try and understand how they developed this early awareness, how they knew there were these important issues and wanted to do
something about them.
In 1988 I went to work with a company in Mechanicsville, Virginia. The employees were a 60/40 mix of whites and blacks.
Two prominent employees, one white, one black, both with manager-level responsibilities, appeared to have a continuing close relationship. I saw these two individuals daily, had respect for their difficult jobs, and thought I knew them as well as
one might in a corporate situation.
The 2009 Obama inaugural prompted me, as a senior officer, to set up a room with a TV that could broadcast the inauguration for those wanting to observe this truly historic occasion.
Just hours before it was broadcast, I was asked by one of the above individuals, roughly, why I was making this effort. The question was asked in such a way that it shocked me, and I felt ill-at-ease and a bit threatened. This company opportunity went
on as planned but I decided that I was learning something about latent racial issues.
And so I began to develop a late, intense interest in why I, and by extension, others, had some human rights areas that needed examination. I was bothered by my lack of breadth in understanding civil rights issues, women’s issues, and in general,
human rights issues.
With this $90m company I was charged with responsibilities in international market development. I witnessed events in Italy, Spain and Taiwan where women were demeaned by the legal system, the employment system and socially.
I was also charged with market development in North America and can attest to the lack of availability of opportunities for African-Americans and women in the industry in which we developed an 85 percent market share nationally and 65 percent internationally. I
mention this significant market share so that you understand that - I had the data.
I graduated in June 1965 and Jon Daniels was murdered two months later. I was unaware of this event. Much was going on in the U.S. at the time. There were riots in Las Angeles and a general background level of news on the rights marches. And for me, 22
and a recent graduate, life was mostly about me.
Last year I was invited to a VMI reception for the Virginia General Assembly at the Library of Virginia where approximately 35 cadets were in attendance. They were demographically diverse, and I spent two hours talking with as many as I could. In the
course of the conversation I would intentionally ask a question about some social issue that was currently in plain sight in the Virginia media. Now, when I was at VMI we got our news from a single B&W TV in a PX about 1/4 the size of the current one. Today,
with your access to the Internet, I was a bit dismayed that the cadets I talked with knew little about the several rights issues that were prominent in the General Assembly and consequently the media. Governor McDonnell gave a brief talk at the reception, and two hours later he was confronted with a General Assembly revolt over legislation that he was planning on signing. Social engineering was alive and a hot topic at the time. Well - VMI is unique. Your day is highly designed - from very early to late. You probably feel that there just is not the time for one more thing. I would have felt the same way at the time.
I’d like to talk about a proactive attitude towards social and economic issues, and human rights issues.
I am here to advocate that you make some effort to become aware of that which will surely impact you in some manner. There is not one of you who will escape a global influence on your life in some way. You may choose to be a teacher, a lawyer, insurance
agent, to work in military command, or in small or large business - in Marion, Virginia, or New York City - there is none of these that will not be influenced in the future by the need for a perspective in a global sense.
Jon Daniels chose a non-traditional career path. It was selfless. Somewhat crassly, it was in a not-for-profit market. Today there is the term - social entrepreneurship. It’s limited meaning is: one identifies a problem of a social nature and applies an entrepreneurial process to it through a not-for-profit institution.
More broadly in the for-profit segment, it has been defined as an organization that deploys a holistic view to not only the owners, but also the employees and the community. This can be anathema to a business person who believes that the shareholder is the primary, sometimes the only point of concern. This attitude of social entrepreneurship, however, does not demean profit and profitability in any way. It is a different attitude of resource allocation.
I will offer a few recommendations from speakers who have presented at VMI.Here are two individuals who have been involved in careers that serve others:
a) President Jimmy Carter - he received the first Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award in 2001. Since he was president he has formed numerous humanitarian organizations. His Carter Center works internationally in assuring fairness of elections, developing health programs, mediating conflicts, and in food growing and distribution programs.
b) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - spoke here in April of 2012 on her receipt of the Distinguished Diplomat Award. In her talk she extended a broad invitation for those in the Corps who might be inclined to consider career paths in social or government service markets.
The “not-for-profit” markets - offer opportunities that include pay that is competitive to the for-profit markets. Some offer life-changing interactions with those they serve. One non-profit, “Guidestar,” is a platform for data on all non-profits. It offers
an information portal into any of these companies you would like to examine. Log on to this site - guidestar.org - and for any organization one can access mission statements, board members and the pay scale of significant employees. You might do this as you consider career paths.
In the leadership picture, I have expressed continuing interest in the Center for Leadership and Ethics, and generally, in leadership and how it is defined.
Most leadership courses are process-directed leadership theories. Teaching one to lead a group from A to B.
Though it is not as prominent in the reading as I would like, all depend on an individual’s character and one’s ethical basis for making decisions.
Here at VMI you get what Socrates said was necessary for growth and maintenance of one’s character - practice. He felt that practice was a continuing requirement. General Peay, personally, and his staffs and the Corps offer this on a daily
basis. It’s a definitive part of the VMI experience. Moral ambiguity is not a trait of a leader.
I took an advanced writing course last fall at VCU with a group of 21-year-old students. As a course requirement we had to initiate a blog and mine was on character and leadership. We were to read each others’ blogs. I, regularly, would get emails from
these young women and men who almost always said they did not view themselves as leaders. In talking with them they generally defined a leader as someone, very visible, with some mission and power over others.
One has to consider - please consider - how much “character” defines a leader. I would argue to my VCU classmates that if one had and worked on his or her character, had and developed self-respect - that there was a leadership component that was
always visible. That for for every highly visible leader with an intention to be a recognized leader, there needs to be 100 others who are working quietly.
This is the large stage vs the less large stage. Most of us will work on this less large stage. I urge you to look into socially-based issues and careers that support these issues. The last paragraph of Cadet Daniels’ valedictory address is pertinent today: “My
colleagues and friends, I wish you the joy of a purposeful life. I wish you new worlds and the vision to see them. I wish you the decency and the nobility of which you are capable.”
I appreciate this opportunity to have met with you. Thank you.