Hamilton ’85: From Recipient to Donor

Matt Hamilton '85 and Heidi Gomula

Matt Hamilton ’85 completed his bachelor’s degree through the financial assistance of alumni. His wife, Heidi Gomula, received similar assistance to complete her degree at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, now Randolph College. To give other young people the same help they had received, the couple recently began the Heidi and Matt Hamilton Scholarship.—Photo by Portrait Creations.

At 6 years old, Matt Hamilton ’85 made the trip with his family to attend his cousin’s college graduation. It was spring 1969, and the cousin, Jack Burroughs Jr. ’69, was graduating from VMI. Captivated by the sight of the Corps of Cadets on parade that day and wanting to serve in the military, Hamilton wound up matriculating at VMI himself.

Money, though, wasn’t just tight for the Hamilton family. It was nonexistent. “We were food stamp poor, welfare poor,” Hamilton related. The family scraped together enough funds to pay for one semester at VMI, utilizing a federal Pell Grant and a loan from the local bank, but when Hamilton’s father dropped his son off on Matriculation Day, he gave him a $20 bill and said, “That’s all we’ve got.” At that point, a second semester of study was uncertain. As a rat, far from home and knowing that his parents could not do more for him than they were already doing, Hamilton wasn’t sure what to do.

But members of the VMI family rallied quickly to provide financial assistance, and Hamilton was able to not only stay at VMI but also graduate with his class, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. During his cadetship, Hamilton served on the Honor Court and was a battalion commander his 1st Class year. To this day, though, he doesn’t know who provided the funds to pay for his education.

After graduation, Hamilton served on active duty with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, eventually becoming a banker in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he met and married a woman with a story similar to his own. Heidi Gomula, a 1989 graduate of Randolph-Macon Women’s College, now Randolph College, had received financial assistance to complete her education from a RMWC alumna she’d met in her home state of New Jersey.

Owen McIntyre ’85, Matt Hamilton ’85, Kerry Kirk ’85, and Ralph Tremaglio ’85 as cadets

Roommates Owen McIntyre ’85, Matt Hamilton ’85, Kerry Kirk ’85, and Ralph Tremaglio ’85 as cadets. Hamilton received financial assistance to complete his VMI education and recently began the Heidi and Matt Hamilton Scholarship.—Photo courtesy Hamilton.

Now, Hamilton and Gomula are repaying what was once done for them by establishing a scholarship at VMI. For Hamilton, it’s about giving back to the place that gave him so much; for Gomula, it’s about keeping a long-ago promise.

Gomula’s benefactor, Mary Large, told Gomula that she’d help pay her tuition—but there were strings attached. Good grades and graduating Phi Beta Kappa were a must, and Large also told Gomula that if she were ever able to do the same thing for another student in need, she should do so. Now, with a career in banking spanning 33 and a half years, Gomula is fulfilling that promise.

“So, it was really important from my perspective to find the right way to do that,” said Gomula. “And the right institution in which to do it. Mary Large was my motivator for wanting to [establish a scholarship].”

Hamilton never knew who paid his bills at VMI back in the 1980s. With only $20 in his pocket, Hamilton had to pass on getting snacks and sodas with his dykes and brother rats, and soon, one of them told Col. Mike Monsour, Ph.D., professor of modern languages, about Hamilton’s dire need for funds.

“He was my saving grace,” said Hamilton of Monsour. A note from the Rat Disciplinary Committee came next—but Hamilton was not in trouble. Instead, he was summoned to Smith Hall to meet with Lt. Col. Dan Troppoli, then in charge of finances. Troppoli called Hamilton into his office and said, “Rat, explain your situation.”

Next, Troppoli called Hamilton’s parents to verify their son’s story. Reassured that the need was very real, Troppoli told Hamilton to see him every semester. “You tell me how much you’ve worked, how much money you have, and I’ll make up the rest,” was the message Hamilton received.

At that time, jobs on post for cadets were scarce, but with help from Monsour and Troppoli, Hamilton was given a job with the Cadet Program Board, acting as a receptionist and showing movies in the old Lejeune Hall, and that job allowed him to earn a little spending money. In the summers, he washed dishes by hand at a Pizza Hut in his hometown of Sanford, North Carolina.

“VMI has been a driving factor in my life,” he stated.

When he and Gomula began to do estate planning not long ago, including VMI in their estate was a given—but they also wanted to give back in their lifetimes so they could form a relationship with the young person they were helping.

“That’s what’s driving us,” said Hamilton. “We want to get to know the cadet.”

With the assistance of Meade King ’85, VMI Foundation chief operating officer, the couple was able to set parameters aligning with their goals: The Heidi and Matt Hamilton Scholarship is to be offered to a cadet with demonstrated financial need matriculating from either North Carolina or New Jersey, ideally majoring in economics and business.

The Hamilton scholarship will be awarded for the first time in the 2023–24 academic year.

“It feels great to pay it forward and help a cadet as we were helped,” Hamilton and Gomula stated.

  • Mary Price

    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.