Celebrated each year since the Institute’s beginning, Founders Day marks the anniversary of a snowy Monday – Nov. 11, 1839 – when the first cadets arrived to relieve the guard at what had been a state arsenal.
It is is one of the Institute’s oldest traditions, and today we continue to celebrate our beginning, disciplined training, founding principles, and our future. Highlights of the yearly celebrations (weather-dependent) include a parade, which is open to the public and the firing of Howitzers by the Cadet Battery. There is also a Founders Day convocation, where cadets hear from guest speakers, and awards, including the New Market Medal and Distinguished Service Awards, may be presented.
The day culminates with the Institute Society Dinner, typically held in Marshall Hall. This dinner celebrates a segment of VMI alumni, family and friends who step forward in a significant way to support VMI through unrestricted gifts. Their level of contribution distinguishes them as Institute Society members.
Col. J.T.L. Preston, a lawyer in Lexington and one of the founders of VMI, declared that the Institute’s unique program would produce “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers,” and this observation has been substantiated by the service of VMI graduates in peace and war.
Professor (later Maj. Gen.) Francis H. Smith, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, was the first superintendent of VMI. During his 50-year tenure, the Corps increased in size, the curriculum broadened, and the faculty grew.
The first president of the Board of Visitors was Col. Claudius Crozet, a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and former faculty member at West Point who was the state engineer of Virginia at the time of his election to the board.
A Special Celebration
In 2014, the Institute celebrated its 175th anniversary on Founders Day. Events included a ceremony in Lejeune Hall, where is is currently displayed, during which members of the Corps of Cadets placed items into a time capsule. It will be on display until it is opened 50 years from its creation, in the year 2064.
Among the 22 items are some reflective of modern cadet life, including a 1st Class private belt buckle; a class dyke belt buckle, which is worn by 4th Class cadets, 3rd Class cadets, and 2nd Class privates; and a Rat Bible.
Other notable items include a football from VMI’s first Southern Conference win, over Furman University in 1931; a map of the George Washington National Forest, the location of the 4th Class field training exercises; and a room inspection checklist, or “bone sheet,” familiar to generations of VMI alumni.