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.