After More Than Two Decades at VMI, Hutchings Retires
LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 5, 2021—You might say that Col. Eric Hutchings ’77 is something of an expert on VMI’s three-legged stool: academics, athletics, and military training.
As a cadet-athlete, Hutchings experienced all three legs of the stool. As commandant from 2000 to 2007, he was primarily responsible for the military leg. Later, as special assistant to the athletic director for military affairs, he made it his business to help cadet-athletes learn how to balance that stool, even when the “legs” or responsibilities seem to be tilted more towards one side than another.
On Dec. 31, Hutchings retired, capping off more than two decades of service to the Institute.
The paths that life has taken him on would have likely proven to be a complete surprise to his 18-year-old self in 1973, freshly arrived as a football recruit from Columbus, Ohio. The legendary Bob Thalman, head coach of the Keydet football team for much of the 1970s, had brought him to the Institute with assurances that he’d play as a freshman.
“I was young and excited and all I wanted to do was play football,” recalled Hutchings.
And that’s exactly what he did as a defensive lineman, helping the team earn the Southern Conference championship in 1974.
Even now, Hutchings can remember Thalman, a man of intense energy and can-do spirit, inspiring the team in the locker room, “There’s no one on the planet who can beat us this day.”
Buoyed by Thalman’s intensity, the Keydets toppled Eastern Carolina for the Conference championship in a home field victory, 13-3.
Academically, Hutchings eventually found his footing as a history major, but today he laughs at the memory of being told, as a 3rd Class cadet, that he wasn’t going to cut it as a civil engineer.
“These grades are awful,” he remembered the late Col. Donald Jamison ’57, then head of the civil engineering department, telling him. “We can’t let you be an engineer. You might build something that would collapse and the school would get sued. I think you’re a history major.”
Up until that point, Hutchings had been tutored and kept afloat by the late Col. George Piegari, professor of math and computer science, and as life often comes full circle, years later, Piegari also tutored Hutchings’s son, Michael Hutchings ’10.
“He got us both through rat calculus,” said Hutchings of Piegari.
While Hutchings had come to VMI ambivalent about commissioning, he became surer about wanting to serve his country during his cadetship.
His commissioning was delayed by a football injury, but Col. William Buchanan ’50B, commandant, and Col. Beverly Read ’41, a highly decorated Korean War veteran, made a special trip to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, to commission him and others. Thereafter, Hutchings spent 23 years in Ranger, Airborne, and Special Forces units, while serving overseas in Germany, Italy, and Korea.
By 2000, Hutchings had been selected as a full colonel, but accepting that rank would have meant uprooting his family yet again, this time so he could attend the War College. Seeking stability for his wife, Janine, and their three children, Hutchings accepted the job as VMI’s commandant instead.
At the time, the Institute was facing many challenges. Women had joined the Corps of Cadets just three years prior, and as Hutchings put it, “the jury was still out” on whether their integration would be a success.
“It was too early to claim victory or defeat,” he stated.
Turnover in the commandant’s office had also added to the uncertainty, and since many policies and procedures weren’t documented, what went on in barracks was largely reliant on what had happened in the previous year or two.
“The cadet Corps was somewhat rudderless,” Hutchings noted. “A lot of things weren’t written down. The Corps loosely operated on a kind of tribal wisdom.”
As commandant, Hutchings sought to improve the military professionalism of the Corps. He did so by bringing in young veterans to serve as role models for the cadets.
“You need lots of overwatch,” Hutchings stated. “Plus, you need that youthful example. Kids want to talk to a young officer about their options in the military. They don’t want to talk to old Col. Hutchings, you know, who was at Gettysburg.”
Hutchings also codified much pertaining to the Rat Line and cadet self-governance.
To develop and maintain a consistent approach to cadet training, including the Rat Line, Hutchings wrote what he termed the “rainbow books” to complement the cadet Blue Book. These books, which covered cadet government and various cadet staff operations, were meant to act as a “handrail” for cadets, Hutchings explained. He also developed the nine-day matriculation program which is the cornerstone of modern rat training.
By 2007, Hutchings had reached the point of wanting a job that was less physically demanding but would still allow him to be of service to the Corps. He found that position as chief of staff to then-Athletic Director Donny White, and for a brief period of time, he also served as coach to the Institute’s NCAA rifle team.
Under current Athletic Director Dr. David Diles, Hutchings served as special assistant to the athletic director for military affairs. The long title essentially translated to helping cadet-athletes, especially those commissioning, to balance their athletic and military obligations while still maintaining their grades. Managing cadet time was somewhat akin to being an air traffic controller—but in this case, the job was synchronizing cadet obligations rather than managing planes.
Conflicts between athletic and military obligations are frequent at VMI—so common that Hutchings dealt with them on a daily basis.
“I’m telling staff and faculty, ‘Cadet X can’t do this today because tomorrow we’re playing Citadel,” said Hutchings.
It wasn’t a small job, either, just from the number of cadets involved. The Institute fields 18 NCAA athletic teams—11 for men and seven for women—making oversight a real challenge. When events such as parades were scheduled, Hutchings determined where members of each team might be that day and informed the commandant’s office of who would be missing. He also briefed coaches about player performance in the Corps and which cadets might be candidates for future rank.
College athletes, he noted, often have inherent leadership skills and the necessary physical courage for military service. “If you can harness that for the Army, for the nation, then that’s huge,” said Hutchings.
Hutchings’s next step after retirement might be described as professional grandpa. Janine Hutchings already spends much of her time traveling between the couple’s three children—son Michael is in Rhode Island; daughter Jennifer, in Ohio; and daughter Amanda, in Colorado— and caring for the six grandchildren who’ve come along in recent years.
“I’m not as proficient as her, but I’m more fun,” said Eric Hutchings of his role as grandpa.
After almost a quarter-century at VMI, Hutchings continues to tout the philosophy of the three-legged stool.
“There’s just a lot of great young people here, and I’m interested in making sure they get the absolute most out of VMI,” he commented. “Our regimen instills leadership attributes in these cadets daily.”
“Col. Hutchings filled tremendously important roles within our department, and previously at Commandant,” said Diles, athletic director since 2013. “I’m appreciative of his deep commitment to VMI and wish him, and his family, only the very best as he moves into a well-earned retirement. I’m pleased that he’ll be remaining in Lexington and I expect that we’ll continue seeing him highly involved and supportive of VMI.”
Communications & Marketing
Virginia Military Institute