Growing up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Gussie Lord ’01 never envisioned that she’d be part of a history-making group: The first VMI class to include women. She’d never even heard of the Institute until she received recruiting materials in the mail.
She did, though, have the requisite qualities to come to VMI and succeed—courage, initiative, and a willingness to take several large steps outside her comfort zone. Today, as an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, and a member of the VMI Board of Visitors, Lord is finding that the best opportunities come to those who keep stepping up and showing up.
Lord’s path to VMI—and having her name inscribed in the record books as a trailblazer—began when she reached high school and began to ponder her options for higher education. Guided by a strong family history of military service, she applied for an ROTC scholarship and didn’t get it. However, filling out the application put her on VMI’s mailing list, as the Institute was then casting a wide net to attract its first coeducational class.
When Lord asked her high school guidance counselor about VMI, the counselor told her that the Institute was a good school but had only been admitting women for a few years—not realizing that Lord’s would be the first class to include females.
Lord applied—and then received a phone call saying she’d be among the first class of women. Undeterred, she reached out to retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael “Mike” Bozeman, then the Institute’s track and cross-country coach, and told him she was a runner. He replied that her timing was excellent, as VMI planned to field a women’s cross-country team in the upcoming academic year.
“It is my understanding that it was the first time a college fielded a full women’s NCAA team in the first year of coeducation. So that was a really good opportunity that I was afforded at VMI,” Lord stated. “I really treasure that experience.”
Lord never thought of herself as someone who’d break down barriers. But most importantly, she never thought of herself as someone who couldn’t. Instead, she focused on opportunity.
“I just felt that I could do it,” she said of her decision to become part of the VMI’s first coeducational class. “I knew that somebody was going to show up and do it. I could do it.”
Arriving in Lexington, there was plenty of culture shock as Lord adapted from the Upper Midwest to the mid-Atlantic. But thankfully, there was ample support as well.
“Everyone was really kind,” she recalled. “Professors, coaches, host families, other cadets’ parents—they’d all be willing to talk to you or take you home and feed you, which I thought was really nice, especially since I was far from home.”
Lord also felt support from her brother rats. “I feel like the bond I have with the women in my class is extraordinarily unique and special. And the guys in our class definitely supported us, too, and felt like, well, we’re all in this together,” she commented. “It also was apparent that the 1st Class cadets, our dykes, felt a lot of responsibility to make sure they were doing a good job and treating everybody the same.”
“The time management skills I learned at VMI are really helpful in balancing my work and family responsibilities. It’s just constantly juggling so many things at one time. I feel like I already learned how to do that because of my time at VMI. You have to be able to keep your cool and maintain your sanity under pressure coming from different directions.”Gussie Lord ’01
Throughout her cadetship, Lord kept seeking opportunities, not only running on the cross-country and track teams but also participating in cheerleading, the Promaji Club, serving as editor of the opinion page of The Cadet newspaper, and holding an on-post job as a cadet waiter in Crozet Hall.
“Something really nice about a small school is that you have the opportunity to participate in so many things,” Lord stated. “And I really appreciated that about VMI.”
After graduating with distinction, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a minor in writing, Lord returned to her home state to attend law school, earning a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Michigan.
Then, she once again took a road less traveled, deciding to specialize in environmental law.
“Although I didn’t join the military, I wanted to be of service to my community or the country,” Lord explained. “I wanted to have a career that would be helpful to other people.”
In deciding to focus on environmental protection, Lord took cues from her family background and upbringing. She’s a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin on her mother’s side, and her family participates in activities such as hunting, fishing, and trapping. Her childhood was spent the way childhoods were spent for millennia before urbanization—tromping around outdoors in the woods.
“I wanted to do environmental law—protecting the water, protecting the wildlife so that those things are still there in the future. And not just for our children—Indigenous people say that, in every decision, you should consider the impact on the seventh generation,” she said. “So, our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Hundreds of years out. I really try to incorporate that principle in my work.”
Now, as managing attorney of the Tribal Partnerships Program at Earthjustice, Lord helps Indigenous peoples protect their land and fight for their rights. Recently, she’s helped protect the Menominee River, which separates Michigan from Wisconsin, from the effects of an open pit mine and saved nearby Native American burial and cultural sites in the process.
Before coming to work for Earthjustice and relocating to the Washington, D.C., area, Lord and her husband, Ryan Lapsley ’02, lived in New Mexico, where she worked with Indigenous peoples on commercial contracts and affordable housing and also worked at the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
At 43, Lord is at the stage of life where responsibilities mount—but hours in the day do not. She credits her time at VMI with helping her deal with pressure, stress, and the demands of parenthood, as she and Lapsley raise their daughter, 13, and son, 10.
“The time management skills I learned at VMI are really helpful in balancing my work and family responsibilities,” she stated. “It’s just constantly juggling so many things at one time. I feel like I already learned how to do that because of my time at VMI. You have to be able to keep your cool and maintain your sanity under pressure coming from different directions.”
The “five more minutes” strategy she employed during the Rat Line—give it five more minutes, and things will be better—has been invaluable in her adult life, Lord added.
Since July 2021, Lord has served on the Board of Visitors, an experience she terms “humbling” and “an amazing learning experience.”
She’s been particularly impressed to learn just how much goes on behind the scenes—and how members of the VMI family all work together on the Institute’s behalf.
“There are so many moving pieces and so many things that such a small school is dealing with,” she noted. “I am really impressed with how well everybody works together and really wants to make sure the cadets have the support they need. I appreciate how everyone at VMI puts the cadet experience at the forefront of the decision-making.”
Two decades out from graduation, Lord says she’s still processing her VMI experience. But one thing is clear: She’s glad she asked her high school guidance counselor about VMI and even more glad she chose to attend.
“Having the VMI experience, having leadership opportunities, having a small school, and having a tight-knit community are all really advantageous, even after you graduate from college,” said Lord. “VMI has been influential in my life in a way that I don’t know an ordinary college would have been.”
Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.