An on-and-off tradition in the Institute’s earliest years, and a celebrated milestone of the VMI cadetship since the early 20th century, the receiving of class rings is the almost always the highlight of a 2nd Class cadet’s academic year.
What’s more, the VMI class ring is easily identifiable simply by its design and size. But there’s another way that the VMI ring stands out from those at other colleges and universities: It is cadet designed. Each year, a 2nd Class cadet or group of cadets designs the rings that they and other members of their class will wear for the rest of their lives.
Having the honor of designing the ring for the Class of 2021, which celebrated its Ring Figure with a formal ceremony in Cameron Hall and the Ring Figure ball on Nov. 22 is Cadet Smith Blake ’21, a history major from Manakin-Sabot, Virginia.
Blake didn’t get the job of ring designer by accident. He applied for it last fall, in October 2018, just after an email about Ring Figure came out.
“I like history,” said Blake. “I’ve always been an artist. I got the job the next day, I believe.”
Once the job was his, Blake went to work immediately, recruiting Cadet Paige Miller ’21 as his assistant and spending much time in the VMI archives in Preston Library researching dyke lines and class ring designs.
The cadets came to the task armed with the knowledge that they had two surfaces, or sides of the ring, upon which to express their creativity: An Institute side, which represents VMI, and the class side, which is more unique to the class receiving the ring.
On the Institute side, Blake had hoped to include, “The Institute will be heard from today,” a phrase uttered by Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville, but it didn’t work out.
“We couldn’t get that much [text], and we couldn’t get that intricate,” explained Blake. Instead, he wound up going with, “Honor Above Self.” Above that phrase on the ring are the cadet battery – cannons Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – as well as the head of the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead.
Below the phrase are representations of the two men most associated with VMI: Gen. George C. Marshall ’901 and Jackson. Also on the Institute side are the initials of the 10 cadets who died as a result of the Civil War battle of New Market May 15, 1864.
As they contemplated their ring design options, Blake and Miller knew that they wanted to tie into generations of Institute history by including their class’ dyke line, the relationship that runs on a three-year cycle between 1st Class cadets and 4th Class cadets.
“[Miller] and I have brainstormed together,” said Blake. “We’ve really tried to develop a ring that symbolizes not only our class but our dykes’ class as well.”
Happily, Marshall turned out to be in their dyke line, so that made his inclusion on the Institute side of the ring an even more natural fit.
On the class side of the ring is an eagle – symbolic of American liberty – as it is on almost every VMI class ring. But the eagle representations often vary, so the cadet ring designers incorporated the eagle features of the Classes of 1985 and 1991, both of which were in their class’s dyke line.
“[Miller] and I worked together and we figured out a cool little way to slip in both years,” said Blake. “The design of the head as well as the wing spread – that comes from both of those years.”
Also on the class side is the Latin motto from the VMI coat of arms, “Consilio et Animis,” or “By wisdom and courage,” along with the dates of the class’s matriculation and Breakout.
Just as unique to the Class of 2021 are symbols of events during their rat year that class members will long remember. One, an iceberg, represents the coldest 20-mile dyke march in recent memory, and the others – sun, moon and star – commemorating the solar and lunar eclipses that took place then.
But there’s one feature on the class side that’s been used by nearly every class at VMI from 1848, when the first rings were presented onward. Displayed vertically is the Hebrew word “Mizpah,” which is generally translated as, “The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another.”
As he worked through draft after draft, keeping some ideas and rejecting others, Blake drew on what he’d learned as a high schooler taking International Baccalaureate art classes at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond.
“In art, you can’t be perfect at everything,” said Blake. “Every time I made a ring draft, I would mess up and have to start over.”
Having learned to take failure in stride, Blake was able to handle the frustrations that accompany the production of any creative work.
“When I messed up, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that anymore,’” he commented. “It was, ‘How can I do better, and how can I make it look even better?’”
The entire process, from getting the job of ring designer to final approval by senior members of the Institute administration, took two-and-a-half months. In early November, with approximately two weeks to go until the presentation of the rings, Blake could look back with satisfaction on a job well done.
“It was a really fun process,” he stated. “It was a lot of work, getting everything approved and making sure we had everything we wanted on the ring, but in the end … I’m very proud of the ring.”