2011 VMI Valedictory Address: Sharif L. Gray
May 17, 2011
Admiral Mullen, General Peay, members of the faculty and staff, parents and friends, the Corps of Cadets, and most importantly, the best class to have ever lived in barracks, the Class of 2011.
It is truly an honor to be standing here today as your valedictorian. Thank you.
As we all know, VMI is a different type of place. It’s not a regular college, nor is it a full blown prison. It’s something in-between.
As such, it takes a special type of person not only to choose to come here, but to stay here for four years…. sometimes even 5. It’s the type of person that outsiders, at times, might even consider a bit intense. Thank you, Cash Register. If it wasn’t for you, Washington and Lee students might have actually talked to us.
In reality, VMI requires a person who can work a hard 20 hour day, sleep on a piece of foam and wood, and then get up and do it again…. for four years. A person who strives for perfection. One who can’t stand failure, but isn’t afraid of a challenge. A person our nation is so desperately in need of—someone who will fight for what is right, no matter the cost.
Over these past four years, we have been molded into men and women that live to this ideal called honor, something that has been all too forgotten in contemporary society. We do not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. We understand and respect the drum roll.
We are gentlemen and ladies… though every once in a while, we find the time to enjoy a cold forty under the troll bridge or cheer on the VMI hockey team—in a civil manner, of course…. Bravo.
We have accomplished quite a bit. We survived the Rat line, despite trampling one of our own. We were the first class to riot as thirds, losing our privileges time and again. Thank you, Kimsey. We elevated the Ring Figure party to a new level, setting the standard for all to follow. And we ran, arguably, the toughest Rat line in years. But most importantly, we came together as a class, and that is what has brought us here today, only a few minutes from escaping the ever-so-friendly grasp of L-Train’s Blue Book.
I am confident when I say that the class of 2011 is made up of an extraordinary caliber of people. And it is these people, our roommates and friends, who have made it possible for us to be here today. I, personally, would not be here if not for the men of Room 225, Brandon Griffith, Zac Hartless, Jon Stumpf, and Joe Keese. Thank you. My two Rats, Payton Case and Lucas Champion, the members of the Honor Court, whom I have come to consider brothers, The Eleven, the Bravo Bros, F-Troop, the Wrestling Club, the Powerlifting Team, and men like Sonny Landry, Coleman Zwanzig, Josh Bookwalter, and Jonathan Razack. We will treasure relationships like these for the rest of our lives.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not recognize the many others who have supported us these past 4 years.
Faculty and staff like General Brower, Captain Rabern, Commander Joseph, Colonel Bush, Colonel Baur, Colonel Brooke, and Major Cotting have been there for us from day one. They embraced VMI’s mission, one focused on not only producing educated students, but leaders who embody the principles of perseverance, honor, and duty. They have devoted much of their free time to us. And, we are better because of it. Many of our coaches and ROTC cadre are no different.
Our parents and family are also deserving of our sincere thanks. Their unwavering support and love is what pushed us through this place. I speak for all of us, when I say that we hope we made you proud.
Last but not least, our Dyke’s class—the class of 2008, one of whom is walking here today. Sergeant Daniel Jones, a veteran, one of our heroes, and the dyke of Chris Buck, Dave Martin, Rory Chisholm, and myself. Thank you, Dan.
Before we part, I’d like to share a quick story:
In November of 2010, I was fortunate enough to get away from VMI on a weekend with a few of my brother rats. We stayed in Front Royal, VA, with the Gibson family. It was a great weekend. And when I say great, I’m talking about golfing with flaming tennis balls, racing ATVs, eating amazing home cooked meals, and intellectualizing around a fire with a few good cigars and America’s finest cheap beer. We were definitely at break from the daily rigors of VMI.
Like every weekend, though, it eventually had to end. As we prepared to make our way back to the Institute, we began to say our goodbyes. We made our way down to the basement to speak to my friend’s grandfather, Mr. Ralph Gibson, a proud VMI alumnus from the class of 1956. As we entered, he rose from watching one of his classic Steven Seagal movies, approaching us wearing a VMI sweater with a cigar in his left hand and a VMI ring on his right. We all thanked him for hosting us and he responded with the usual pleasantries. As we turned to leave, he leaned over and softly said one last thing, “Remember why you’re there.”
We did not come to VMI to simply sit in our rooms and count down the days to graduation. Not one of us signed the matriculation book with the intent of looking for any and every way out of this place. We signed the book on that fateful day, with aspirations of being molded into a VMI cadet, an honorable, hardworking, and fit individual who will one day succeed in the military and/or civilian world. In our alumni, we have all seen what VMI has produced. And we all wanted to be a part of that tradition.
After today, we will no longer be referred to as cadets, but as alumni of the Virginia Military Institute. Today is clearly a day to remember.
The following days, however, will not be completely absent of VMI. While we will all embark on our different paths, we will surely continue to wear the ring, display the VMI spider on our car, and maybe even wear the khakis with the VMI spiders on them much like the Richmond crowd, but most importantly, we will continue to live the VMI life, one defined by honor and discipline. It is this lifestyle that will help us get our first job or win our first firefight. It is this lifestyle that will help us lead our nation. And I promise you, we will not fail.
To the classes that follow us, make the most out of your cadetship. You will be sitting on this floor awaiting graduation soon enough.
To the Class of 2011, it is now our time to realize what we are truly capable of.
50 years ago on this day, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Jonathan Daniels challenged the class of 1961 to live a life of purpose guided by decency and nobility. Ladies and Gentlemen, we are entering a much different world, yet that challenge remains the same.
We must retain our idealism and commitment to doing what is right. We must avoid the seductions of today’s daunting and rather uncertain world.
Class of 2011, complacency is not an option.
Do great things.