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Gabriel ’12: The Strength of Community

Keith Gabriel ’12

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When Keith Gabriel ’12 agreed to come to VMI on a basketball scholarship, he knew so little about the school that he thought he might be allowed to bring the family dog with him. A decade from graduation, Gabriel is a successful businessman and a member of the Keydet Club Board of Governors. He laughs at the memory of his younger self, a teenager from Charlotte, North Carolina, who thought a canine would be welcome in barracks and didn’t read the packing list carefully enough to see the V-neck T-shirts he’d brought were against the rules.

Needless to say, the Rat Line was a rude awakening. If it hadn’t been for a pact he made with a brother rat, Ron Burks ’12—that if one stayed at VMI, the other had to stay as well—Gabriel might not have completed his education at VMI.

Now, he can’t imagine what would have happened if he’d left. “I genuinely feel that if I had left VMI my freshman year, I would have given up on a plethora of things later in life, and I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he stated.

At 33, Gabriel is working in human resources for JE Dunn Construction in his hometown of Charlotte and earning a Master of Business Administration degree from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School to complement his Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from VMI.

Throughout all four years at the Institute, support and friendship from alumni and community members bolstered Gabriel. Retired U.S. Army Col. Leland Caldwell Jr.’63 reached out to him before matriculation and remains a friend to this day, as the two often see each other at Charlotte Chapter alumni events.

In Lexington, the Cathcart family—Charles S. Cathcart Jr. ’91, Cheryl Cathcart, Charles S. “Trey” Cathcart ’22, and Cadet Cole Cathcart ’24—formed a special bond with Gabriel during his cadetship after Gabriel joined the Cathcart sons and others for a game of Uno in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, after a basketball game during his 3rd Class year.

Gabriel’s years in Lexington were not years of smooth sailing. During his 3rd Class year, Gabriel was caught having a car on post, which resulted in him receiving a 10-6-30 and losing his S-6 corporal ranking. It was only after a call to the Cathcarts that Gabriel began to reconsider his impulse to bag it all and go home.

“At that point, it wouldn’t have been walking away from an institution,” he explained. “It would have been walking away from family. … [There were] so many people that I felt looked up to me, and it wasn’t about my happiness. I couldn’t let those folks in that area down.”

On the basketball court, Gabriel drew strength and inspiration from his teammates. During his 4th Class year, there were Travis Holmes ’09, Chavis Holmes ’09, and Willie Bell ’09, who contributed substantially to VMI basketball’s success during their cadetships; in addition, there was Austin Kenon ’11, one of the top shooting guards in VMI basketball history, who is now entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Keydets.

During furloughs, Gabriel would visit with his twin brother, who was then playing basketball for Auburn University, and he received a taste of life at a “typical” college, complete with off-campus housing. But Gabriel was always glad he’d chosen VMI because deep down, he knew that the “limited distractions” and the lifelong relationships he was cultivating at VMI were helping him to succeed.

“I genuinely feel that if I had left VMI my freshman year, I would have given up on a plethora of things later in life, and I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Keith Gabriel ’12

“It was something in me that was like, this doesn’t feel right,” Gabriel related. “I don’t want to do this. I want the structure. I want the discipline. I want to learn. I want to be in barracks going through similar situations with my roommates, Dion Mosley ’12 and Casey Riggs ’12. I want to grow as a human being.”

After graduation, Gabriel headed to Bradenton, Florida, for the NBA pre-draft camp, but he didn’t receive much interest from NBA teams. He wound up playing professional basketball in Europe for three years. After being released from a team in Germany and the passing of his grandfather, Joseph Hunter, Gabriel realized it was time to start his transition from professional basketball and search for opportunities in the U.S. Once he began reaching out the VMI Alumni Agencies, the VMI network started to show its strength.

When Gabriel graduated in 2012, he received an email from Stuart “Stu” Heishman ’86 introducing himself and mentioned that he was the vice president of business recruitment and economic development at Duke Energy Corporation. In 2015, Keith was playing basketball in Serbia and applied for a position to join Heishman’s team at Duke Energy.

During Gabriel’s freshman year, Heishman had attended a game at Gardner Webb where Gabriel racked up 34 points that game and afterward watched Gabriel laugh and joke with a group of young children. Years later, Heishman told him that he’d watched how competitive he was on the court and how humbled he was with those children. “He was like, that’s what we need at Duke Energy,” said Gabriel. “We need team players. We need competitors. And we need people who have compassion and empathy for others.”

At a larger school, Gabriel believes this might not have happened and the bond between alumni of different class years might not be so strong. “What VMI did for me was equip me for every challenging situation that has happened in my life,” he stated.

In 2019, Gabriel and his wife, Samantha, got news that would traumatize any expectant parents. Their daughter, then a 12-week-old embryo, would be born with many of her internal organs outside her body.

Immediately after receiving this news, Gabriel chose a mindset forged by four years in barracks. “I went into VMI mode,” he stated. “I went into: There’s no time to worry or complain about it. It’s time to face this challenge head-on and get through it. And the way that VMI taught me was that with friends through good times, it’s twice the happiness. With friends through bad times, it’s just half the battle.”

Reaching out to BRs for support helped Gabriel weather the storm. “And so, whenever I had something that I needed to talk about, or just cry about, there was a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen.” Today, Ryleigh Gabriel, now 3 years old, is a healthy, intelligent, and active girl.

One of Gabriel’s fondest memories of his cadetship was graduation when the valedictorian for the Class of 2012 mentioned how much he’d miss going to VMI basketball games. “That really stands out to me because that just shows how much support my teammates and I had from our brother rats, the Corps, and the VMI community. They enjoyed seeing us compete and winning.”

Gabriel has some advice for young athletes at VMI who are considering the transfer portal: Consider what you’re giving up—and stay the course.

“Where can you get the discipline, the accountability, the organization, the time management skills, and making sure that you’re a holistic person?” he asked. “Don’t just leave VMI based on playing time that you are getting or not getting to go to another school because, at the end, VMI is going to hurt this year, but you’re going to hurt in the long run.”

  • Christian Heilman

    Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content

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    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.