The Education I Received at VMI

Over the Thanksgiving holidays I returned to Lexington Virginia, my hometown and also the location of my Alma Mater, the Virginia Military Institute.  I have a love hate relationship with VMI.  I am proud of having attended the institution, but I also get absolutely incensed by the stupidity of the Institution and its Alumni.  One aspect of attending VMI that I am most proud is the education I received.

Over the Thanksgiving I saw one of my professors Colonel John G. Barrett who taught Civil War History during my Cadetship.  But he was but just one of many remarkable professors in the Department of History.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that not even Harvard had such a group of collegial, dedicated, experienced, and knowledgeable professors, teachers, and mentors.  I choose those words carefully—they are not hyperbole.  First and foremost they were teachers and professors.  They taught, they challenged, they assisted in expanding our intellectual horizons, they were experts in their field, they set high standards, and lastly they provided guidance that would help shape not only our Cadetship but also our lives.

So who were these men.  I have already mentioned John Barrett, the others were Colonel Robert “Bob” Hunter, Colonel George M. Brooke, Major Tyson “Ty Ty” Wilson, and Colonel B. McClure “Smokey” Gilliam.

They each taught four classes a week, except if they were the department head, and that reduced your load by one class.  They had no graduate assistants.  Their offices were open throughout the academic day and often after normal duty hours.  While appointments and office hours were posted, Cadets were encourage to stop by any time when they had issues with a class, needed academic advice, or just needed an adult to talk to.

As professors they were experts in their field.

John Barrett, as I said taught the Civil War; he also taught American History and Colonial American History.  A graduate of Wake Forest, he received his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina.  A Tar Heel through and through, John Barrett’s Civil War was the best history course I have ever taken.  His dissertation at UNC was on the Civil War in North Carolina; and his book of the same title is still in print and is still considered the definitive work on the Civil War in the Tar Heel State.  When I was a Cadet Civil War was a one-semester course—and John Barrett never was able to get to Appomattox or Reconstruction; in the 1980’s it became a two-semester course and he still was unable to get to Appomattox and Reconstruction.

Bob Hunter knew more about modern American History and in particular the New Deal.  As a professor he had a dry sense of humor and lectures were often punctuated with this dry humor.  He was also one who did not suffer fools gladly, more than once when a Cadet would proffer a stupid remark, Bob Hunter would cut him to pieces with a wry retort.  A Washington and Lee graduate, Bob Hunter’s knowledge of the New Deal and its effects on Virginia was deep and without equal.

George Brooke was tall, dignified, silver haired, conservative, and one whose knowledge of American Diplomatic History and Far Eastern History was wide and deep.  Hard of hearing, George Brooke had a deep and loud baritone voice, and who when entering class would grab the desk top lectern, swing it up and loudly slam it down on the desk.  Between his booming voice and his slamming the lectern on the desk, the Cadet nickname for him was boomer.  He was a hard grader.  In my first class year I ended up the semester with an 89.5 in George Brooke’s Diplomatic History, the high grade in his class, and I needed an A in that class to make Dean’s list.  There were professors whom I would have approached about raising my grade; George Brooke was not in that group.  For him life was Black and White, and an 89.5 was a B not an A.

Major Tyson Wilson, while having completed his course work for his Ph.D never completed that degree, but a lack of Ph.D was not an impediment.  A master teacher, who served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, he remained in the Marine Reserves retiring as a Colonel after 37 years of service.  Ty Ty Wilson taught Western Civilization, American History, and most importantly Military History.  His Military History Class was a must not only for History Majors but Cadets of all majors.  When asked a question, which he did not readily know the answer, Ty would “Take a rain check on that” and in the next class he would have an answer.

Colonel Bates McClure “Smokey” Gilliam taught political science; specifically Political Theory and Philosophy.  Earlier in his career he had taught history as well as political science.  A VMI graduate, Smokey Gilliam’s uniform would have caused a Command Sergeant Major to have apoplexy.  His voice was tinged with the sweet cadence of his native Lynchburg and gravely because of his long-term pipe smoking.  His pipes were ever present, and he smoked Sir Walter Raleigh a Virginia Burley Pipe Tobacco.  His grading was unique; if you were a first classman you got an A; if you were a 2nd or 3rd he actually graded your test and exams.

Collectively they provided the Cadets they taught more than just an education, they set standards and demanded they adhere to those standards.  By doing so they set an example of proper adult behavior.  They were professors, they were parents, they were mentors, and they were all good citizens.  They cared about VMI and their charges.  Teaching was not just a job, VMI was not just a place where they worked, for each and every one VMI and their charges were part of the avocation they has chosen—teaching.

But what was unique about VMI—is in every Department from Physics to Biology you found professors just as dedicated to their charges and the Institute.  Again, as I said in the beginning I truly believe the education I received at VMI was as good as or superior to what others received at institutions like Harvard.  But then I am prejudice.



  1. Slater says:

    As SGM Farrell said many times in his French Class, you can get a great education at VMI, you just have to go out and get it.

  2. abie3 says:

    I too am always thankful for the marvelous education I had at VMI.. Rat year was a blur and truly I can recal few of my classes- but 3d Class year I discovered the real value of the school. Like many thirds- I devoted the first part of the year to LeJeune Hall instead of studying- with the result that at Midterm I was failing virtually everthing. I wrote the "woe is me" letter home to my Dad telling him how I just couldn't do it. Dad called BG Morgan directly. I was told to report to Gen Morgan personally- where he told me in no uncertain terms that he knew what I was doing, and that we were going to get this straightend out forthwith- by reporting weekly to his office to personally review my weekly course assignments and grades. Needless to say – by the end of 1st Semester Finals I had a 3.0 and stayed there for the rest of my cadetship. what other school would see the Dean personally reach down and jam an education up the butt of a 20 year old kid from Massachusetts? But by and large, the faculty saw it as their job to make me do mine and I am a better man 35 years later as a result. There were some marvelous teachers in the History department and English departments- Col Barret, Ty Ty Wilson comes to mind- as were then Majors Davis and Gunsberg . And for PE we had Coach King – who though not an Alum, personified the VMI Citizen Soldier concept better than any man I ever met. And oddly enough- I developed a love for Opera at VMI thanks to Col Gentry. As with any place – the real education you received was a direct result of what you gave of yourself, but at VMI we had some of the best mentorys and experts in their fields whoe were willing to help if we met them even part of the way (we also had a few of the worst- don't get me started on Calculus and the Math Department- but that is a subject for another post!!!)

  3. UltimaRatioRegis says:

    Er, "prejudiced". You are prejudiced. "Prejudice", in the context which you use it, is a noun.

    Just sayin'. How'd you do at English composition? :)

  4. Mike Burke says:

    I have to admit to not being a model cadet (read: very happy grub private for all four years) while at VMI, but I like to think I was a pretty good student–after almost flunking out my rat year and subsequently being tutored in calculus all summer by Cloudy Williams–he probably saved me from being drafted. My time in English was much better–I talked myway into doing the honors program (thesis, comprehensive exams) and that set me up well for graduate work in English at Chapel Hill several years later–and which led, after the usual twists and turns of an Army career, to my curren lofty eminence as a full-time English professor.

    I found that VMI wouldn't seek me out if I had troubles, but that I had to ask, and then all sorts of help, encouragement, and advice would appear. But as some others have pointed out, we had to seek it. In my current occupation, I find few of my students have the interest to do that–but then again, I teach in a community college, whre most of my students work full-time, many have children or families, and are balancing a tough load–they even have to do their own laundry! We don't realize how remarkably simple life at VMI could be. My job is to try to offer them as much of a quality education as I got–and that's tough some days–not just because of students but because of a management approach that makes the Army look pretty good. Our institution does not connect the dots internally very well, and so does a number of inconsistent things in the name of efficiency one day and retention the next. Who knew what went on behind the scenes at VMI while we were there? Was it as crazy as the way colleges are run now? I don't think so, since colleges had more state funding and more selective students–we forget that only 50% of HS graduates went to college in the 70s-now it's over 70% and culling the herd is part of the job.

    I miss my great teachers from VMI–i had few bad ones (Al Deal, maybe, though that was more my fault than his, and Bullshit Reeves). But even the less good ones taught me something, and I'm very grateful I went to VMI–

  5. abie3 says:

    One other thing I recall about academia at VMI today with some amusement- though it was painful at the time. One teacher had the most amazing talent- Col Hayes could knock the entire class out within 15 minutes of class starting. I never saw anything like it before or since. Not for nothing was he nicknamed "Ether Breath"! The only way to avoid dreamland for me was to write letters- my girlfriend and parents benefited greatly from this enforced tri-weekly letter writing exercise!

  6. James Ray Cottrell says:


    You dog! Oh the days with you and Hugh White in the English library! Email me to catch up!

  7. Tom Pender says:

    I found this post by chance when I was following the debacle at the English Department on July 3, 2013. I would like to echo the comments of Col Hank. These are also precisely my memories. Have to admit I never heard Col Hayes called Either Breath, but the comment is very true nevertheless (I really liked Colonel Hayes – his BR, Tom Marr was a Professor at Emory Law when I was there). Smokey was my Faculty Advisor and he was funny – he predicted Carter would become President and told me he would shoot a moon from the Sentinel Box if Col Buck was a successful head of admissions. Bet you he did it at night. I liked and respected Colonel Hunter above all, he really helped me with my honor's paper. I owe these men a debt of gratitude I can never repay. There are so many others – – like Colonel Beefo Byers who taught me logic and Col Wingfield who instilled an appreciation for the environment in me. And there is the incomparable DoDo who used to wack the guy to his immediate right with a ruler (a reflex action – not intentional – in my class it was Terry White) every time someone said something stupid – a frequent event. :) :) Bottom Line: We were darned lucky to have these really great guys and somehow they managed to teach many of us. Still, as much as I love what VMI did for me – there are times it frustrates me.