Featured Article

Charles F. Bryan Jr. ’69 and William A. Paulette ’69 Receive VMI Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award

Founders Day Convocation 2021


At this year’s Founders Day Convocation, two brother rats—celebrated public historian and commentator Charles F. Bryan Jr. ’69 and prominent businessman and engineer William A. Paulette ’69—received the VMI Foundation’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. The presentation was made by Thomas H. Zarges ’70, VMI Foundation president. First presented in 1969, the Distinguished Service Award recognizes alumni and friends whose service to the Institute, dedication to the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies, and career achievements and distinctions are exceptionally commendable. To date, only 75 people have received the award.

Zarges said the VMI Foundation board of trustees decided to present the award to Bryan and Paulette, who he described as “two remarkable men,” because their lives “have been characterized by significant professional achievement, selfless service to their professions and their communities, and an unshakeable devotion to the Institute and its advancement.”

One of the country’s most distinguished public historians, Bryan was the president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Historical Society from 1988-2008. His dynamic leadership and bold vision transformed it into an award-winning organization that increased the scope of its programs, expanded its headquarters, and hosted tens of thousands of visitors annually.

After retiring from the VHS, Bryan helped found Bryan & Jordan Consulting, LLC, which specializes in strategic planning, fundraising, board and staff relations, and executive searches for nonprofit institutions and higher education. He has published extensively on various historical subjects and is a frequent columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Bryan served on the board of the National Museum of American History and was the president of the American Association for State and Local History and the Independent Research Libraries Association. He participates in the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lecture Series. In recognition of his service to public history and his other accomplishments, the Virginia General Assembly named him the Outstanding Virginian of 2009.

Bryan has been a faithful alumnus and has long sought ways to improve VMI’s remarkable education. His service included two four-year terms as a trustee of the VMI Foundation and acting as an adviser to the VMI Alumni Agencies during its recent restructuring.

Paulette is the chairman and chief executive officer of KBS, a construction firm he founded in 1975, which is one of the most respected construction firms in the mid-Atlantic, completing many high-profile projects for private and public customers. He also has been active as a professional citizen, serving on the board of the Virginia State Board for Contractors, and in his community as a board member of Make-A-Wish Greater Virginia and the chairman of the Henrico County Community Services Board.

Paulette has served the Institute extensively. He was a member of the VMI Keydet Club Board of Governors from 1997-2002 and again from 2010-19. He served as the Keydet Club’s president from 2011-16 and, in that role, was an ex-officio member of the boards of the VMI Alumni Association and the VMI Foundation. Appointed to the VMI Board of Visitors in 2002, he served eight years, and he was the board’s vice president and led its athletic and external affairs committees. In 2017, the VMI Keydet Club recognized his service to VMI athletics with its Spirit of VMI Award.

“Do you consider honor central to your core being? Do you have the determination [to] face adversity head-on? Are you willing to look out for those who need a helping hand regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or social and economic circumstances? Finally, are you willing to serve your country and community? If your answer to those questions is, ‘Yes,’ then you are the VMI type.”

Charles F. Bryan Jr. ’69, Distinguished Service Award recipient

In his remarks to the audience, Paulette reflected on the fact that “you don’t just go [to VMI] for four years; you go for the rest of your life.” To illustrate that point, he recounted that, although he had eagerly looked forward to graduation, as he drove home that day with his fiancée, Carolyn, he began crying. When she asked him the reason, Paulette answered that it had just hit him that he would never again be in barracks with his brother rats. “VMI is my home,” he said, “and those men are my brothers.”

He also recounted the many VMI alumni who have influenced him as a businessman and a leader in service to VMI, highlighting Elmon T. Gray ’46 and G. Gilmer Minor III ’63 as mentors to him as well as examples of leadership and service. He mentioned, too, that when he was a young engineer, he took a new job. After a few years in the position, he asked the man who hired him why he had done so. The man replied that he had done so because Paulette was a VMI graduate, and he had worked with other VMI graduates who had impressed him. “He took a chance on me because of others who went to VMI.”

Before he ended his remarks with an exhortation to the football team, thanking them for making him and many older alumni happy by winning the Southern Conference championship earlier this year and urging to further victories this year, he addressed the cadets directly, asking them to follow his example as an alumnus to “give back to VMI, give of your time, talent, and treasure.”

When Bryan addressed the audience, he focused on the meaning of the term, “the VMI type.” He said many alumni and cadets probably think of the stereotypical alumnus who “decked out in red pants, white shirt, and a yellow blazer” who “constantly complains that VMI ‘isn’t like what it was like in the Old Corps.’ He’s sometimes referred to as ‘Mister VMI’ because that’s all he seems capable of talking about.”

He then reflected on how the width and breadth of the experiences of alumni seem to argue “there are many VMI types.” He cited numerous examples of this to include George C. Marshall, Class of 1901; Li-Jen Sun, Class of 1927, a successful Chinese general during World War II; Jonathan Daniels ’61; John P. Jumper ’66, who was Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force; his brother rat, John McLaughlin ’69, who, after being an infantry officer, worked for years as a clown with the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus; and Carrie (McAtee) Papke ’07, who, after serving in the Marines, became a successful entrepreneur.

He continued, “The unique VMI educational system is often cited as the underlying reason for that record of achievement. But it is a path toward a college degree that few people choose.” He then explained that the rigors of the VMI education, which he then listed, probably prevent most people from even considering VMI as their college. And, he said, as cadets, many alumni have asked, “Why am I doing this to myself?”

Alumni are glad they persevered in their cadetships; however, he continued, because “when all is said and done, most of us who chose to attend VMI think we are the better for it.”

He closed by posing questions to the Corps. “Do you consider honor central to your core being? Do you have the determination [to] face adversity head-on? Are you willing to look out for those who need a helping hand regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or social and economic circumstances? Finally, are you willing to serve your country and community? If your answer to those questions is, ‘Yes,’ then you are the VMI type.”

Later, Zarges said of Bryan and Paulette, “Through their professional achievements and selfless service, these two alumni have brought great credit to the Institute. Their devotion to the advancement of the Institute and their contribution of so much time and effort have made VMI a better college and strengthened its ability to graduate men and women ready for consequential lives of service, success, and leadership. I was privileged to present this award to them.”

  • Scott Belliveau

    Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects

    The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.