“I’ve had just an amazing career for the guy who was terrible in math. You can’t take yourself too seriously.” That’s how Jack Michael “Mike” Bellamy ’80 describes his career—an almost 43-year span as a civil engineer which has included work in the United States at the Smithsonian Institution, among many other locales, plus stints overseas in places as varied as Italy, Iceland, the Caribbean, and Central America.
And while many of his brother rats have retired or are making plans to do so, Bellamy is still stepping up in the world. In summer 2022, he accepted a senior role as vice president for facilities and campus development at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Bellamy, a civil engineering major at VMI, is a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia and holds a Master of Science degree in building construction management from Purdue University. He is also four courses away from earning a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Iowa.
The whole of Bellamy’s career and lessons learned along the way can be characterized by work ethic, resiliency, and perhaps foremost, people. It all began with the example of his parents, whose wisdom carried him through graduating from VMI—an achievement he said was the pivotal starting point of his career—into the rest of his life.
At 12 years old, Bellamy’s father left home during the Great Depression to live with his aunt above a restaurant and support his family as the eldest child. At night, he was bitten by rats and bedbugs; by day, he shined shoes and sold newspapers, sending the money he made home to his siblings. While attending college at North Carolina A&T State University, Bellamy’s father was drafted into World War II as a private. After the war, he completed college, met Bellamy’s mother, went to the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidate School, and began the progression as a commissioned officer in the 1950s—a time when there were very few African American officers. Watching his parents persist and thrive in the 1960s, Bellamy learned perseverance.
“I grew up in the ’60s, experiencing a lot of racial injustice, and watching my parents go through that and be successful was so impactful,” said Bellamy. “The big message my parents taught was that once you start something, you don’t quit, and there is nothing you can’t do. Always persevere and achieve what you want to achieve.”
In 1972, when Bellamy’s father retired from the military, there was a recession. He was left with no job options at the time but to pump gas, despite being a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. “I asked, ‘Dad, why are you doing this?’” recalled Bellamy. “And he said, ‘Michael, we’re Bellamy men. And we do whatever we have to do to take care of our families, even if it’s a temporary thing. You don’t turn down a job when you don’t have one.’ This left a big impression on me as a young man,” said Bellamy.
When Bellamy was in the ninth grade, his family moved to Hampton, Virginia, where Bellamy began playing football. He was recruited by the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, and North Carolina Central University, and he signed a letter of intent to play at NCCU. Because of his parents’ guidance, however, Bellamy changed his mind and redirected his course to VMI.
“My mother came in the room that day I signed the letter and said, ‘Michael, I really wish you wouldn’t go [to NCCU].’ My parents were not helicopter parents. They let you make your own decision. But her saying that jarred me a little. So, I said, ‘I’m going to go to West Point.’ I called West Point and missed the cutoff by one day.”
Because of a call from Donald “Donny” White ’65, VMI football defensive secondary coach at the time, Bellamy instead arrived at VMI. White had one scholarship left and offered it to Bellamy, who decided on the Institute.
Just as he chose the challenge of attending VMI and performing as a cadet-athlete, Bellamy also decided to push himself academically. In a rushed decision during his first few weeks at VMI, Bellamy decided to major in civil engineering. The only problem: Math was his weakest subject. “I was terrible in math,” Bellamy laughed. “That night when I called my parents and told them I was going to major in civil engineering, they looked at each other, and they said, ‘What is wrong with this boy?’”
Bellamy struggled with the demands of studying engineering in addition to the long hours of football, yet he prevailed. When a classmate suggested that Bellamy consider switching to a different major, Bellamy took this suggestion as a challenge to keep going rather than give up. “After my freshman year, I didn’t go home for the summers, as I stayed at VMI to make up for the courses I had failed and to take a course in order to have a lighter academic load during the football season,” said Bellamy.
“I carried 15 hours during football season, and then in the spring, it was 18-21. In my class, there were only two African Americans to graduate in civil engineering: It was myself and my very close friend, Aaron Bush [’80], who went on to have a very successful career in the U.S. Army and retired as a full colonel. We were both also athletes.”
“Investing in relationships is extremely important if you want to be successful in life.”Jack Michael “Mike” Bellamy ’80
Though Bellamy didn’t know it at the time, his time at the Institute and graduation would lay the foundation for a successful career. “They were very formative years in my life, learning how to stay focused and persevere through those very difficult four years,” reflected Bellamy. “I knew I wanted to finish. I didn’t want to quit. I wanted to graduate in four years with a civil engineering degree.”
After graduation, Bellamy began working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before moving on to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. While working for the Navy, Bellamy was mentored by Gary Mackey ’69, his supervisor at the time. The two maintain a close relationship, and Bellamy often thanks Mackey for investing in him. “[Mackey] played a big role in mentoring me as a young engineer. He encouraged me to pursue challenging international job assignments, professional registration, and made sure I was prepared to compete and be selected for high-impact jobs that were visible and career-enhancing.”
Some time later, Bellamy and his wife, Kimberly, were living in Iceland. During that time, he visited Italy in a consulting role and fell in love with the country, but he had no luck when he looked for a job there.
Then, he received a call one day from Mackey, who said, “They’re starting to forget about you. You need to come back so you’re more visible.” And so, in 1997, they returned to the U.S. Three years later, after prompting from Kimberly, who knew Bellamy continued to dream of working and living in Italy, Bellamy reached out to Mackey. “I went to see Gary [Mackey] that next day, and he said, ‘You won’t believe it, but the guy that’s leading the construction program in Northern Italy is coming back, and the job is yours.’” This was the largest construction program in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Bellamy enjoyed his time there as the work was challenging and career-broadening.
While Bellamy was happily employed in Italy, the Smithsonian recruited him to oversee the planning, design, and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He, however, wanted to remain in Italy for another seven years and turned the offer down. A short time later, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s leadership told Bellamy he had been overseas too long and needed to return to the U.S. to work on other high-priority programs. This time when the Smithsonian reached back out to Bellamy again, the offer was more compelling.
“The Smithsonian came again and said, ‘You might be interested in this. Not only will you be responsible for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but all the planning, design, and construction for all the Smithsonian facilities across the country and down into the Republic of Panama,’” recalled Bellamy.
Bellamy took the offer. This job, which was two levels above his position at the time, allowed him to expand his skill set professionally. “I was fortunate to get that job. It really stretched me as a leader,” he said. “I got promoted from a midlevel leader to a senior executive leader, so it required a different set of skills. You’re not leading small teams; you’re leading a large and complex organization.” In this position, he led an 18-month strategic planning effort for this 1,800-person facilities organization, delivered $2 billion worth of capital improvements that included overseeing several major capital projects like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and co-led the implementation of major organizational realignment and change management initiatives.
Work on the National Museum of African American History and Culture took 10 years to complete. One of the amazing aspects for Bellamy was collecting all the exhibits that would be displayed at the museum, as well as the intention behind the museum design, including the choice to place the museum deeper into the ground. “The idea behind this design decision was to give you this sense of freedom and life as you leave the deep darkness and sadness experienced at the slavery exhibit in the lowest level of the museum and travel up to exhibits in the upper levels,” said Bellamy.
Reflecting on why he finally took the Smithsonian opportunity, Bellamy recalled a poignant conversation with his pastor’s wife. He was making a comment about turning down the offer while attending church Sunday when his pastor’s wife pulled him aside. “She said, ‘Wait a minute, you turned down an opportunity to be involved in a museum that represents the entire African American race?’ I knew I was in trouble then,” Bellamy quipped. “She said, ‘This isn’t about you. It’s about your children and your grandchildren. You never know, this museum might be an answer to some slave’s prayer to remember what happened to them.’ When she said that, it had a big impact.”
After five years with the Smithsonian, Bellamy retired from public service and transitioned to Clark Nexsen Architecture and Engineering before moving to his most recent role before Yale—executive director of facilities services at Kaiser Permanente Health Plan Foundation of the Mid-Atlantic States Region. As part of that job, Bellamy oversaw a $130 million annual operating budget and a $3.5 billion multiyear capital program.
A former colleague who hired him at Kaiser reached out to Bellamy about the position at Yale, as he felt it fit Bellamy perfectly. “Yale has museums, labs, administrative buildings, academic buildings, residence halls, health care facilities, and I have experience with all those building types,” said Bellamy. “I honestly feel all my experience over my career prepared me for this. And what a way to end your career at such a prestigious institution of higher education that has so much influence around the world. The Yale facilities and capital development team is responsible for a $3.7 billion five-year capital program, an annual operating budget of more than $270 million, a diverse workforce of nearly 1,000 staff members, and the maintenance and operations of 20 million gross square feet of build space comprised of almost 350 historic and new buildings across three campuses and throughout New Haven and the state of Connecticut. It’s extremely exciting to be a part of this endeavor. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to lead at Yale.”
It comes down to one of the major takeaways Bellamy has carried with him throughout his career: The power of relationships with others. “It is just the people—the people [who] have helped me and mentored me. A big part of my life has also been mentoring emerging professionals and forming relationships with others,” he stated. His passion and conviction for mentoring and advancing others in their careers is largely shaped by Mackey’s impact on his life. “As I took on leadership roles of greater responsibility and influence, there was a deep sense of obligation to help others like Mackey helped me. So, I adopted Mackey’s approach to mentorship and have helped scores of high-potential employees advance in their careers as well.”
The most important relationship to him is with his wife of 41 years. “Investing in relationships is extremely important if you want to be successful in life,” said Bellamy. “My relationship with my wife, Kimberly, and our faith have been game changers. Without her and us working together, all the success achieved over the years wouldn’t have happened.”
During his 35th Reunion at VMI, Bellamy walked by Nichols Engineering Building and was suddenly overcome with emotion. “I just broke down and started crying,” said Bellamy. When Kimberly asked him what was wrong, Bellamy answered and pointed to Nichols and said, “All the fruit that we have experienced in our lives, it began right here.” He said we often do not realize the future impact of the decisions we make when we are young. And many times, the fruit of those choices shows up decades down the road. “You are going to reap what you sow.”
Considering the importance of persevering and graduating from the Institute to Bellamy personally, it may not come as a surprise that he made sure his headshot in Yale’s press release featured the piercing blue gem and unmistakable outline of his VMI class ring. In a sense, the picture reflects Bellamy’s own story. It tells of his progression from the first great challenge of his professional and personal life at VMI and the culmination of his career as his hard work led to this high-level position at one of the nation’s most prestigious Ivy League universities.
Haiti: Bellamy’s “Most Impactful Experience”
In his 42 years as a civil engineer, Mike Bellamy ’80 has sustained an illustrious career. He has worked in the United States and overseas in Italy, Iceland, the Caribbean, and Central America; served as the senior facilities executive for engineering, design, and construction for the Smithsonian Institution, which included overseeing the planning and design of the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture; and led facilities capital program delivery and facilities maintenance and operations for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States Region as executive director of facilities services.
Considering the scale of projects he has worked on, including his most recent position, one stands out above the rest to Bellamy for the personal impression it left on him. This project was in 2010 when the Smithsonian asked Bellamy to lead a team into Haiti after the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which left much of the country in rubble. Their mission was to locate, secure, outfit, and bring into operation a cultural heritage recovery center to serve as a base of operation for the salvage and preservation of historical relics and artifacts that were an integral part of Haiti’s national identity.
At the time, there were 1.5 million Haitians living in tents without potable water or sanitary sewer facilities, and the country was full of cholera and death, with aftershocks at 4.5 on the Richter scale. In these conditions, Bellamy led his team of facilities professionals, archivists, conservationists, and a New York Times reporter into the country—all of whom were counting on him to bring them out safely. Of his many memories of the trip, he recalled two particularly impactful moments, both of which exhibited the persevering joy and resilience of the Haitian people.
In the first instance, Bellamy was leaving a destroyed museum when he noticed a very large group of children singing. When he asked his translator who they were, the translator explained they were all orphans who lost their families in the earthquake. “They had all this joy, and I couldn’t understand it. So, I asked what they were singing about, and the translator said, ‘They are singing about all the good things in life.’ Tears filled my eyes as I was overcome with emotion,” recalled Bellamy. Along the way, Bellamy was struck by the stories of survivors and their positivity. One of the individuals held a master’s in computer science and worked in an office building in Haiti along with his wife. He happened to leave the office just 30 seconds before the earthquake hit, and the building immediately collapsed. His wife, however, was trapped inside, and he began praying. In an hour or so, his wife emerged from the rubble. They had just bought a new computer desk, and she dove under the desk, which protected her. Bellamy said stories like this moved him for their perseverance and positivity. “It was the joy and the resiliency that I saw, and it changed my life forever. Anytime I have difficulty, I remember them,” said Bellamy.
“There isn’t enough time to tell you about everything that happened in Haiti, how everything came together, and the number of artifacts that were recovered and restored, and the number of Haitians trained in art conservation,” Bellamy continued. “But probably the greatest thing I ever did in engineering was leading this team into Haiti. Undoubtedly, it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve ever had.”
Mattie Montgomery Assistant Editor
The assistant editor assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication. The assistant editor serves as liaison between class agents and chapter presidents and the Agencies’ publications, as well as provides backup photography for events.