Graduates Admonished to be ‘Men and Women of Principle’
LEXINGTON, Va., May 16, 2013 – Almost 300 graduates of Virginia Military Institute were reminded of their obligations to serve, to lead, and to live lives of purpose and honor in commencement ceremonies held in VMI’s Cameron Hall this morning.
Addressing the graduates this year was Virginia Gov. Robert F. “Bob” McDonnell, now in his last year in office. Many of this year’s graduates had marched in McDonnell’s inaugural parade in January 2010, during their 4th Class year, and the governor made reference to their “spectacular” appearance there as he began his speech.
McDonnell, who served in the military himself for over two decades, opened his remarks by acknowledging the sizable percentage of cadets in this year’s class who chose to commission in the armed services.
“That’s a superb tribute to how much this Institute contributes to the defense of the United States of America,” McDonnell commented.
In his remarks, McDonnell spoke of the contributions of many famous people associated with VMI, among them Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and alumni George C. Marshall and Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights martyr.
He then mentioned two VMI graduates whose names made the news in April: Maj. Gen. Joseph D. Brown ’80, a veteran pilot who died along with his wife, Susan, when the plane he was piloting went down near the Williamsburg, Va., airport April 19, and Richard “Dic” Donohue ’02, an officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority who was critically injured the very next day in a gun battle with the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.
“VMI doesn’t just produce graduates,” said McDonnell. “VMI produces leaders. Today, you take your place among those leaders.”
Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III ’62, VMI superintendent, also acknowledged the leadership of the class of 2013, and urged the graduates to keep the Institute’s ideals in mind. “Hold onto your concept of honor,” said Peay. “That is the foundation stone, the bedrock, the very essence of VMI. … People will hold you to a higher standard because you are a VMI graduate.”
Giving a speech that offered a rare mix of existentialism and humor was Matthew Waalkes, valedictorian of the Class of 2013. Waalkes’ remarks brought first laughter of recognition, then cheers, and finally a standing ovation from his Brother Rats.
“We have been marching to the beat of VMI’s drums for so long (thanks to Band Company), that when their sound rapidly faded away, we found ourselves wondering why we have been marching in the first place,” said Waalkes. He went on to discuss the metamorphoses that have occurred in the class from Matriculation Day – Aug. 22, 2009 – to today.
Waalkes remarked, “From the trials of the Rat Line to graduation which we celebrate today, the Class of 2013 has become a distinct community, filled with the motivators who led a sometimes reluctant Corps to do what was needed to be done, as well as the goofballs … who reminded us that excellence in VMI’s monotonous routine should not be the most important goal in life.”
It is just that community that will sustain the graduates in the years to come, said Waalkes, as he invited his fellow graduates to pause, reflect, and gather into memory all of those who have created and sustained their VMI experience.
“Look around at your Brother Rats; look around at the faculty and staff,” said Waalkes. “And look at all the friends of the Institute that you may never have known if it was not for this experience. …Surrounding each of us here today are friends, family members, faculty and staff, and Brother Rats that will be an indispensable part of our lives, providing us with the strength, wisdom, and love we need to proceed to a life of virtue.”
It is this virtuous life that each cadet is called to lead, Waalkes noted, saying VMI has prepared him or her well for the challenge. Waalkes continued, “Essentially our world needs women and men of principle who will stand for values and beliefs despite the costs, despite any ridicule or scorn. This challenge to persevere in virtue undoubtedly dwarfs the trials of VMI.”
Waalkes, a biology major from Waynesboro, Va., received the Wilbur S. Hinman Jr. ’26 Research Award in Natural Science and Mathematics at the Institute Awards Convocation Tuesday. Waalkes also received the First Jackson-Hope Medal and the Cmdr. Harry Millard Mason Academic Proficiency Award. Both are given to the cadet with the highest grade point average.
The Second Jackson Hope Medal, and the Col. Sterling Murray Heflin 1916 Academic Proficiency Award, were awarded to Sungkuyn “Eddie” Chang, a computer science major from Port Washington, N.Y.
Receiving the Society of the Cincinnati Medal, which is given for efficiency in service and excellence of character, was Jenna Moye, a biology major from Moseley, Va. Moye was also awarded the Richard J. Marshall and Sumter L. Lowry Awards.
– Mary Price