Kemper ’68: Seeking the
End Game

John Kemper ’68

Photo courtesy John Kemper ’68.

During his six decades of involvement with the VMI basketball program as a team co-captain, fan, and now a scholarship donor, John Kemper ’68 has seen it all: Victories over powerhouse Division I schools, heartbreaking hair’s breadth losses, coaching changes, and more. He’s seen generations of cadets come through the program, and he’ll tell you right away what makes writing those checks and driving those miles to games so worthwhile: Developing relationships with cadet-athletes, getting to know them and their families, and seeing once-unsure young men become confident VMI graduates who flourish long after they’ve left the barracks behind them.

Kemper didn’t have to wait very long to have his first scholarship recipient flourish: Reggie Williams ’08 was recruited to play basketball out of Prince George High School in Prince George, Virginia, and would go on to become the Keydets’ all-time leading scorer, a record that still stands. After graduating from VMI in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, Williams went on to become the second VMI graduate after Ron Carter ’78 to play in the NBA.

As a new scholarship donor in 2004, Kemper knew that he wanted to do more than provide financial support. He wanted to get to know the young men his dollars were supporting, get to know their families, and be a resource for them. In Williams’ case, Kemper knew he’d been successful in establishing that bond when he showed up at a home game, and Williams’ aunt came prepared with a special gift.

“I will never forget this,” Kemper commented. “She brought me a birthday cake there in the stands.”

For Kemper, being a scholarship donor is a good thing—but being an effective mentor is even better. “I consider myself first as being a mentor to Reggie, and that’s just as special as watching him play at VMI and in the NBA,” he commented. That mentorship continues to this day and has deepened into a friendship, as the two men both live in the Richmond, Virginia, area and get together for lunch or dinner several times a year.

During Williams’ cadetship, being a mentor meant encouraging, motivating, and nudging him to complete his education at VMI and then think beyond the basketball court. With Williams and others, Kemper related, he always asks, “What’s your end game? What do you want to achieve?”

“You can make a name for yourself at VMI, and a degree from VMI is special and allows you the opportunity to develop an alumni network that is second to none.”

John Kemper ’68

In an ideal world, Kemper stated, each cadet would be paired with an alumnus mentor at the end of his or her rat year, if not before. As a young alumnus, Kemper was on the receiving end of mentoring from Lt. Gen. John W. Knapp ’54, now superintendent emeritus, and Col. James M. “Jim” Morgan Jr. ’45, longtime professor of civil engineering. It was thanks to Morgan that Kemper found his first job, one with the city of Norfolk, Virginia, after completing his military service with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It isn’t easy to get a teenager or young adult to see the long view of life, and thus Kemper is particularly concerned when he hears that a player is considering entering the transfer portal. Other schools might be easier academically, but there’s a cost to leaving the Institute, he tells potential transfers. “You can make a name for yourself at VMI,” Kemper noted, “and a degree from VMI is special and allows you the opportunity to develop an alumni network that is second to none.”

Even today, more than 50 years after graduation, Kemper can still remember the somewhat circuitous path that brought him to VMI and its basketball court, then in Cormack Hall and affectionately known as “The Pit.”

Kemper’s own path to VMI started with wanting to play football, not basketball. He’d hoped to be the Institute’s quarterback or cornerback, but John McKenna, then the Institute’s football coach, found out that Kemper weighed less than 145 pounds. “You might be a little small for football,” Kemper recalls McKenna telling him, and with that news, Kemper went on a basketball recruiting trip to the College of William & Mary, where the Keydets were playing the Tribe in basketball. There, Kemper first encountered Louis F. “Weenie” Miller, a mainstay of Keydet athletics from the 1960s to the 1980s. At the time, Miller was coaching the VMI basketball team.

“Weenie Miller was quite a character, always stomping and always raising Cain,” Kemper related. “I just got in my mind that I wanted to play for this guy.”

Miller resigned in spring 1964, shortly after leading his team to the Southern Conference championship, but Kemper remained on course and matriculated to the Institute, as his older brother, Richard “Dick” Kemper ’62, had done several years before.

Under Gary McPherson, who succeeded Miller as head coach, the Keydets attained VMI’s first winning record in the Southern Conference in 21 years, a feat they achieved in Kemper’s 1st Class year. That same year, Kemper led the team in scoring for the second straight year—an accomplishment Williams would replicate 40 years later. In 1983, Kemper was inducted into the VMI Sports Hall of Fame.

  • 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.