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Oliver ’06: “The Most Important Thing Anybody Can Do”

Anthony Oliver ’06 with his son, AJ

Anthony Oliver ’06, Ed.D., with his son, AJ.

A VMI connection in his favorite sport brought Anthony Oliver ’06, Ed.D., to the Institute—and today, Oliver connects what he terms the “transformational” nature of his VMI experience with his success as an educator and founder of a brand-new charter school in his home state of Alabama.

Growing up, Oliver loved to play baseball, and as a high schooler, he got to know the father of a fellow player, William “Bill” Cather ’65. As a cadet, Cather had roomed with the late Donald “Donnie” White ’65, longtime VMI athletic director, and it was Cather who told Oliver about the athletic opportunities at the institute.

“I had an older brother [who] went to West Point, and I was familiar with military schools but had not really thought about VMI as an option,” Oliver commented.

In fall 2002, Oliver came to VMI with an academic scholarship and walked on to the baseball team. Very quickly, though, he realized that the level of play required for college baseball is vastly higher than it is for high school, and he changed sports, playing rugby instead. With the goal of becoming a math teacher, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics.

After graduation, Oliver stayed on the course he’d set and returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, to teach math. After six years in the classroom, he took a big leap and moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he earned a Master of Education degree from Harvard University, before returning to Birmingham to launch a nonprofit, Breakthrough Birmingham, that provides summer and after-school enrichment opportunities for bright but economically disadvantaged middle school students.

Soon, though, Oliver knew he wanted to be more directly involved in education. “I just love school,” he commented. “I love the process of seeing education impact the lives of students and teachers.” After a few years as an assistant principal and then principal, and earning two more degrees, including a Doctor of Education degree from Vanderbilt University, Oliver once again felt the urge to change course.

“I really got to the point in my career and life where I wanted to create a school environment everybody wants to be in—students, staff, families, community members,” Oliver stated.

“[Integrity is] doing what’s right by kids and families, and that means providing them with the highest quality education possible. We know all students deserve that.”

Anthony Oliver ’06, Ed.D.

This fall, Empower Community School opened in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, Alabama, with an enrollment of approximately 140 students in grades K-2 and 6-7. The gap in upper elementary grades is intentional, Oliver explained, as the goal was to start small and build from there. Eventually, he hopes the school’s enrollment will top 700.

As he builds the school community, Oliver draws from the lessons he learned at VMI.

“It’s the citizen-soldier,” he noted. “We don’t normally think of education in that way … but being an educator, providing a service for the community is probably the most important thing anybody can do.”

Discipline and building good habits are another tenet of VMI that Oliver strives to pass on to pupils, approximately 80% of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finally, there’s integrity: The core of VMI.

“[Integrity is] doing what’s right by kids and families,” he stated, “and that means providing them with the highest quality education possible. We know all students deserve that.”

Being there for students and giving back to them is important to Oliver, in the same way that mentors at VMI gave back to him. He remembers Andrew Slater, former assistant baseball coach and son of Thomas “Tom” Slater ’66, as a great influence on him, along with Joseph M. “Joe” Irby II ’85, then a rugby coach and now a VMI Alumni Agencies major gift officer. “[Irby] wrote my recommendation letter to get me my first teaching job,” Oliver commented. “I still have it here on a binder on my desk.”

Over the years, Oliver has mentored many young people, and two of them—Walker Hays ’17 and Chuckwuebuka “Buka” Anwah III ’18—have gone on to graduate from VMI.

Now, he’s in one of life’s most important mentoring roles, as he and his wife, Jessica, raise their children. Anthony Jr., who goes by AJ, is a kindergartner at Empower Community School, and his younger sister, Katherine, is 2 years old. Are they future cadets? Their father would like to think so. After all, he’s gone on to achieve more than he’d ever thought possible, including earning degrees from prestigious schools, despite having graduated from VMI with only a 2.9 grade-point average.

“It’s shocking the amount of preparation I had even with those grades,” Oliver said. “I tell people all the time that I made a decision at 18 that catapulted me for the rest of my life.”

  • 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.