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Northam ’81 Addresses Corps of Cadets

Gov. Ralph Northam ’81 addresses the VMI Corps of Cadets in Cameron Hall on the evening of Nov. 15.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

Published: November 16, 2021

Just between Founders Day and Ring Figure, two signature events at VMI, Gov. Ralph Northam ’81 visited post on the evening of Nov. 15. He met briefly with Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, before heading to Crozet Hall to have supper with cadets holding leadership positions.

He then joined faculty, staff, and the entire Corps of Cadets in Cameron Hall, where he addressed the audience. His remarks began by acknowledging another winning season for the Keydet football team, something he remembers from his cadetship. The football team has had winning records this year and in 2020, but these were the first since 1981, the year Northam graduated.

He highlighted honor and pride in traditions that the Corps is known for, like marching in inaugural parades in both Richmond and in Washington, D.C., including his own parade four years ago. He was the first VMI graduate to serve as governor of Virginia in more than a century.

With a quarter of the audience still immersed in the Rat Line, Northam talked about his first year at VMI. He joked about starting the fall semester with a girlfriend and a full head of hair, but quickly losing both. “It seems like just yesterday,” he said.

He gives credit to VMI for providing the foundation that allowed him to be a U.S. Army veteran, a doctor, a husband of more than 30 years, a proud father, and governor. “I know many alumni would agree that we have been able to accomplish important things, especially in public service, because VMI prepared us to do so.”

He admits he came to VMI and went through his college years not asking questions he maybe should have, and that he had a lot of learning to do. He didn’t ask “why” about a lot of things, including why the statues are being saluted, and why some symbols might be offensive. He just wanted to fly under the radar, avoid extra push-ups, and get through the day. In the 40 years since getting his VMI diploma, he says, “I’ve come to understand what a large and diverse world we live in.”

Cadets will be prepared for their next ventures, whether in the military or private sector, and Northam believes, with Virginia’s high rankings in business, investments in transportation, and workforce talent, cadets have the opportunity be successful here in the Commonwealth. “VMI is the place that is preparing you for that future.”

He emphasized several questions that leaders should ask themselves, and noted that these questions should also be asked to allow VMI to continue to produce generations of citizen-soldiers. These questions are focused on making sure that there is a focus on having better days ahead, being competitive, reflecting the people directly served, and having a reputation of being welcoming to all backgrounds.

Northam did not stray from the high-profile year of controversy at VMI. “This year has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone who loves this place. And I want you to know, that includes me.” He reflected on the debate about allowing women to attend VMI and how that wasn’t easily accepted by some. But good comes from change. “VMI has changed before, and the sun came up the next morning, even brighter.”

The future is bright for VMI, believes Northam. He sees the recent changes, the strong leadership, and commitment to diversity as adaptations that will allow VMI to remain successful. “This country is crying out for the spirit of public service that so many VMI graduates have exemplified over the years.”

His moments at the podium wrapped up with words many cadets wanted to hear by the Commander-in-Chief of the VMI Corps of Cadets: “I hereby grant amnesty to those cadets with penalty tours and confinement currently in effect!”

Wins agreed with the sentiment provided by Northam saying “He certainly brought a message that will resonate with the cadets now, and into their adulthood. Diversity is an asset. They will be most successful in the workforce, in the military, whatever their future may be, by embracing diversity and change. The world is different from when he and I were cadets, and the world will continue to change. Our cadets will be ready.”

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