On May 10, 2020, Sgt. Michael W. Clegg ’88 of the Newark, New Jersey Police Department, died of COVID-19. After his death, Clegg, who had served his hometown for 27 years as a police officer and been a leader in the Newark Police Bronze Shields, an African American police officers’ association, received many tributes. Darnell Henry, Newark police chief, said in a statement that Clegg had “blended the finest traditions from over a quarter-century in policing with today’s best practices of impeccable community service and leadership of other officers.” An obituary described him as “a blessing to all the lives he touched.” Clegg was posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Newark Police Department.
Another tribute came from his brother rats, and it will be an enduring one: The Michael W. Clegg ’88 Memorial Scholarship. The genesis of the scholarship began with a text message received not long after Clegg’s death by one of Clegg’s brother rats, Richmond-based Sean Cantrell ’88. “I heard about his death from a friend in New Jersey who texted me if I knew this guy, Mike Clegg, who passed away from COVID.”
The news had a profound effect on Cantrell. “We’ve lost brother rats before this, but Mike’s death affected me in ways and for reasons I can’t really explain.
“When I heard he had passed, I kept thinking I should step up and start a scholarship for him,” Cantrell continued. “I thought of his long service as a police officer. It didn’t take long before I told myself that he needed to be honored, and I got to work.”
Cantrell decided that a scholarship would be “the right thing to do.” He had experience in establishing them, previously setting one up at VMI. “With the cost of college so high, every little bit helps.” He got in touch with J. Addison Hagan IV ’97, then a major gift officer with the VMI Foundation, to hammer out the details and got the fundraising started with a gift of $10,000.
His next step was to contact two brother rats, Lew Sigmon ’88 and Tim West ’88, both of whom were good friends of Clegg. “I wanted Mike’s friends to be part of this effort,” he explained. Besides getting them to agree to be among the signatories in the memorandum of understanding that would formally establish the scholarship, he enlisted their help – and that of class agent Edward Wetherell ’88, who had posted news of Clegg’s death on the class’ Facebook page – in getting the word out to the class via social media. “I’m not much on social media,” Cantrell admitted.
He also sent an email to brother rats in the Richmond area. In that message, he stressed the fact that COVID-19 related restrictions had prevented brother rats from attending the Clegg’s memorial service. As he put it, “None of us could attend his funeral. We couldn’t pay our respects to his friends and family.”
West mentioned that many in the class keenly felt that they were not able to honor Clegg in person. “We weren’t able to attend the services or the honor assembly that his fellow police brothers had arranged. We all had to watch via video or livestream.”
As to his reaction to Cantrell’s request that he co-sign the memorandum of understanding and help with the social media campaign, West said he agreed immediately. “I’d do anything for my BRs.”
With Wetherell, West, Sigmon and Cantrell, along with Adam Volant ’88, class president, working to inform the class about the scholarship, the reaction was immediate and positive. “I was totally floored!” said West. “I think the scholarship was fully funded within 72 hours of the word getting out! The BRs of Class of ’88 really stepped up. This just goes to prove the strength of the bonds that VMI forges within classes.” Others who knew Clegg in barracks or had law-enforcement ties also gave. Dean Barr ’87, who was Cantrell’s cadre corporal, made a gift, as did Jim Spellman ’85 and Scottie Burris ’99, both of whom are police officers in the New York-New Jersey area.
The leaders of this effort believe its success stems from two things. First, as West put it, “I think it was mostly a reaction that we, as a class, were not able to attend or properly honor Mike at the time of his funeral services. That got the ball rolling.” The second was Clegg’s character. Cantrell described him as “such a nice guy, real easygoing. He was one of those guys whose face you always remembered.” West remembered him as “always having a pleasant outlook no matter how bad things got, even throughout our Rat Line! He always had a smile and an encouraging word for all his BRs.” An anecdote from West sums up Clegg’s reputation among his brother rats quite nicely. “It was huge news that Mike was able to attend the most recent class reunion. BRs were calling me and telling me all about Mike being there and how much he and they enjoyed it.”
As of Aug. 31, 2020, 109 donors – the vast majority from the Class of 1988 – had given more than $34,000 to the endowment that will support the scholarship. As to what they like to see the scholarship become over time, West said, “I’d like to see it attract more minority cadets who want to go [into] law enforcement.” While Cantrell also thinks supporting a cadet who plans to pursue a police career would be a great use of the scholarship, he wants it to eventually provide a full scholarship.
Asked to sum up the effort, Wetherell said, “Mike epitomizes the ideal brother rat and VMI graduate. He was selfless, supportive and encouraging of others as a cadet, and he dedicated his life as alumnus to serving his community. He loved us and VMI. So, the scholarship is a natural and fitting extension of Mike’s legacy. It is a meaningful way to remember him and honor him and his selfless commitment to helping others.”
For his part, West cast it in terms of brother rat spirit: “All of our classmates are important to us, and even though we may have different views on life and our paths have taken us to different parts of the world and back, we’re always there for each other.”
Anyone who wishes to support the scholarship can do so by visiting the secure webpage below. Please send checks to the VMI Foundation; P.O. Box 932; Lexington, VA 24450. Please be sure to designate the gift to the Michael W. Clegg ‘88 Memorial Scholarship.
Anyone who wishes to support the Michael W. Clegg ‘88 Memorial Scholarship can do so by giving online.Give