Stories of Impact

Butler ’23: Drum Major Leads the Beat

Colin Butler ’23


“I don’t even remember what my day was like in high school because I would just go in and just ride the wave. But here, you really have to apply yourself. There’s no riding the wave because if you ride the wave, you’ll leave.” That’s how Cadet Colin Butler ’23 explains his cadetship—four years of purposeful effort that have resulted in wearing academic stars as a civil engineering major, serving as drum major of Band Company, playing as a member of the Brass Quintet, and preparing to commission in the U.S. Army. It’s been a full-scale effort from the moment he matriculated, and now, with graduation just months away, Butler is very appreciative of all that VMI has given him.

During the Rat Line, Butler chose a “head down and get through it” approach, moving from one task to the next. Not only did this help him with day-to-day stress management, but it also enabled him to see what the Rat Line was doing: Bonding members of the class together. Right away, Butler could understand why new cadets come in as a Rat Mass and only later become recognized as a class.

“You’re a mass, and then you become one thing,” he noted. “You’re feeling sorry for yourself, and you look to your right or your left, and you see everyone suffering just as much as you are,” he stated. “Seeing my brother rats going through it all really helped. … You’re like, okay, I’m good.”

Academically, VMI’s small class sizes allowed Butler to flourish in a way he might not have at a larger school. “There’s like 20 people in a class if it’s not like a gen ed class, and then, you get to really focus in on the subject,” he commented. “It’s even smaller than my high school classes, to be honest, which is weird for most people.”

The relationship built between professor and cadet is another feature unique to VMI, Butler believes. “They know you,” he stated. “They know how you act and your work ethic, and if you have a good work ethic, it pays off. They’ll trust you to do stuff.”

Away from the classroom, Butler keeps a steady beat as drum major. “I don’t mean to put myself out there, but I feel like I’m the second or third most important cadet in the parade because I’m in charge of making sure that the drums keep going. … It just keeps the parade going smoothly,” he commented.

Many people don’t realize that the drum major’s mace is a signaling device. “I get to learn to twirl the mace, so it’s fun,” he noted. “People think it’s just showy stuff, but when I twirl the mace, it means something, like start a song, stop a song, turn right, turn left, halt.” Working closely with Col. John Brodie (Hon), Regimental Band director, Butler says that being drum major is almost like “being assistant band director.”

Leadership opportunities like being drum major have shaped Butler’s cadetship in a way he could never have anticipated before VMI. “I had never been a leader before VMI,” he said. “It’s like those practice reps. … And honestly, getting better as a leader takes those practice reps, especially when you’ve never done it before. … You get to learn how to speak in front of people. You get to learn those subtle details of how people are when they’re your subordinate versus your friend. You learn more about that here than in other places.”

Last summer, Butler attended Army Advanced Camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, a 35-day event in which Army ROTC cadets from across the nation come together to be evaluated on the basis of their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. There, he could see and sense the difference VMI makes in preparing leaders.

“I felt more prepared than the average college student,” he stated. “It was a lot of the small things, like just being comfortable in the military environment. … It means something when you say, ‘I’m from VMI.’”

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