Remarks from Northam ’81 to Corps of Cadets

Ralph Northam speaking to 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.

Editor’s Note: As governor, Ralph Northam ’81 requested an audience with the Corps Monday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. Since the event was closed to the press and public, the VMI Alumni Agencies want to share the contents of his speech with you.

Published: Nov. 16, 2021

Good evening, VMI.

To you the corps of cadets, members of the Board of Visitors, General Wins, faculty, and staff—thank you for the privilege of being with you back on post this evening. And congratulations to the Keydets for another great winning football season. You are making us proud.

Four years ago, on a cold and blustery January day, the Corps marched in the parade for our inauguration. I’ll always recall the pride I felt that day, as the Corps marched past the historic State Capitol in Richmond.

The Corps has marched in inaugural parades in Richmond and in Washington for more than a century. It’s an important tradition, and one that I pray will continue for generations to come.

That day was incredibly special for me, as the first VMI graduate to serve as Governor in more than 100 years.

Speaking of traditions, Virginia just had another safe and secure election. Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and I hope all of you who are of age voted. Many men and women, including some from this institution, have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the privilege of voting.

I have spoken with Governor-elect Youngkin about our commitment to a smooth transition, and I am confident he will serve Virginia well.

I wanted to come here tonight to say thank you, and to talk about something we all share—a love for this important Virginia institution, and our obligation to take actions to sustain it, and make it even stronger, for future generations.

I am tremendously proud to be a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, and I’m sure you all are proud of what it means to be here as well—what it says about your capacity for honor. For discipline. For integrity. For being part of a very tight-knit family. And for doing what is right, even when it’s not easy.

Yes, I may be biased, but I believe VMI is the finest military school in the best country in the world. But I wasn’t so sure about that when I sat in your seat, as a 17-year-old rat.

Forty-four years later, it seems like just yesterday.

When I came to VMI, I had a girlfriend, and a generous head of hair. Within three months, I had lost them both. My head was buzzed, and then I received the letter a lot of us get—the one where my high school sweetheart told me, hey, we should just be friends. We all know that’s code for “I’m seeing, or interested in seeing, someone else.” In the place of that girlfriend and that hair, I got the pleasure of being a rat at VMI.

Shining my shoes and my brass. Straining. Rolling my hay up every day, and my dyke’s. Memorizing the Rat Bible. Pumping out pushups while 3rd classmen looked on with pleasure. Most of all—doing everything I could to avoid being singled out.

At 17, I was just trying to survive the rigors of this school. I made it, and you will too.

In my time at VMI, I served as my company’s first corporal, first sergeant, first battalion commander, and president of the Honor Court. I wore academic stars, and like you, I was the beneficiary of a world-class education.

Back then, I could not imagine that I would be standing here today. An Army veteran. A medical doctor specializing in child neurology. A husband of 35 years. A father of two. The uncle of a third classman. (Travis, your dad says hi.) And a public servant—having served as state senator, lieutenant governor, and now the 73rd Governor of Virginia.

Today, it is crystal clear that VMI provided me the foundation that my future was built on.

VMI made me who I am. 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.

But at 17, I could only see what was immediately in front of me—biology classes. Organic chemistry. Physiology. Applying to medical school. I learned a lot here, but I now realize that there was a lot going on around me that I didn’t recognize.

If I could go back and talk to 17-year-old Rat Northam, I would tell him, Ralph—you have a lot to learn about the world.

And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that the world is filled with people who are different from me. People who think differently from me. Who experience things differently from me.

Back then, I didn’t ask a lot of questions about day-to-day life around VMI. March that way? Yes, sir. Salute that statue? Yes, sir. Travel to the New Market battlefield? Yes, sir.

I didn’t ask why. I just did what I was told—trying to avoid ten more pushups.

It didn’t occur to me to ask, who is that a statue of? When was it erected? Why is that person being honored? Who decided that we would all salute him?

When I saw the Confederate flag, it didn’t occur to me to ask, what does flying the Confederate flag, or playing Dixie, symbolize? Why are we glorifying the Lost Cause? And might these symbols be offensive to some of my fellow cadets?

These questions simply were not on my mind when I sat in your chair.

But 44 years have passed since I sat there, and over that time, I’ve come to understand what a large and diverse world we live in—and how much the world looks to our country for honest leadership. And as your governor, I have emphasized the importance of embracing diversity, being inclusive, being welcoming, and treating people fairly and with dignity.

I spent last week in Europe participating in numerous meetings with over 25 companies, from five different countries, trying to recruit businesses to invest in Virginia. I can’t express to you how excited these companies were about the prospect of doing business in this country.

Earlier this year, I was proud that CNBC named Virginia the best state for business—for the third year running.

CNBC ranked Virginia number one because of our talented workforce, our world-class education institutions, our investments in transportation—to include our world-class port—our commitment to renewable energy, and our 41 beautiful state parks.

For you, the sky is the limit for exciting career opportunities. We have a strong and thriving Virginia—a Commonwealth that opens its arms to people from around the world. The diversity that we’ve embraced in Virginia makes us stronger.

It is proof that when you treat people right, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business.

I bring this up to you because within just a few years, all of you will graduate. You will be out in this world, and no matter where you go—the military, or to a private sector job—you are going to encounter a wide variety of people, of all faiths and backgrounds.

VMI is the place that is preparing you for that future. Its mission is to prepare you to be citizen-soldiers, to value public service, to live with honor and dignity, and to treat everyone with respect.

That is incredibly valuable. I want this institute and this mission to survive. I know you do, too.

For VMI to survive and thrive for generations to come, we must continually ask ourselves a few simple questions. These are questions that leaders of every business, and every important institution must continually ask:

Do we reflect the people that we serve?

Are our best days ahead of us, or behind us?

Are we competitive? If not, why not? If so, what are we doing to remain competitive over the long term?

What do prospective students experience when they come on post?

Does our reputation invite new students and faculty from diverse backgrounds, or do they simply never consider VMI in the first place?

This last year has been an incredibly difficult time for everyone who loves this place. And I want you to know, that includes me.

As an alumnus, a member of the Class of 1981, I care about the future of VMI. And I also am the Governor of Virginia, representing 8.5 million Virginians, and VMI is a public institution supported in part by public dollars.

Some of us are old enough to remember the debate around admitting women to VMI in the 1990s. And we remember that VMI did not easily accept change then, either. In fact, this institute spent seven years fighting a court battle to keep women out—going as far as the United States Supreme Court, where VMI lost 7-1.

The superintendent at the time called it a “savage disappointment for the alumni.” And he also said this. “If you fight for something you believe in, nothing is wasted, ever.”

Indeed. That’s why I, and the Board of Visitors, and General Wins, have taken a different course than the VMI of the 1990s. Because we believe in the strength of VMI to not just survive change, but to grow from it.

We didn’t want to see VMI waste years trying to hold back needed changes. We didn’t want this institution to put so much weight on keeping things the same that it couldn’t see the good that would come out of change.

We are stronger because of the women in this audience, those who came before you, and the many who will follow. VMI has changed before, and the sun came up the next morning, even brighter.

As a public servant and as an alumni, I want this institute’s future to be as strong as possible. To get there, we have to embrace change once again.

Over the years, I’ve helped train many new young doctors. And I’ve always taught them this lesson: the eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know. It means that if you don’t know what a medical diagnosis is, your mind won’t identify it when you see it—even if all the symptoms are staring you right in the face.

If you haven’t experienced sexism or racism yourself—perhaps because you look like me—and you haven’t paid much attention to what it looks like, you’re going to have a very hard time recognizing it. Until you learn what it looks like. Until you learn how to see it.

That is where I was, when I was Rat Northam and for a long time afterward. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. But I was wrong.

Luckily, I learned a long time ago—right here at VMI—that education, and listening and learning, is meant to open our minds.

There’s a proverb that says, “A wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.”

Here at VMI, we have built up a lot of traditions over the generations. Many of those traditions have great value in molding young people. But others do not.

We must understand our past, both the good and the bad, if we are going to move forward together as one.

Today, we should all be confident that VMI is positioned for a stronger future.

Gone are the statues that glorify rebellion against the United States. In place are new provisions for privacy and safety for all—especially women. The Institute has now stated a commitment to diversity, and to making certain that all cadets, faculty, and staff, feel safe and welcome. This needs to continue for VMI to succeed.

And new leadership is in place. Major General Wins is a fine solider and a good man.

He is the right person to lead VMI at this important moment. We should all continue to give General Wins and the Board of Visitors our support—because VMI will succeed when their vision succeeds.

The changes that have come to VMI in recent months are the same ones that nearly every other major American institution has experienced over the years—every company, every university, every government agency. Every institution has to adapt to change, to be successful.

Good and thoughtful leaders know how to hold on to the qualities that made this Institute great, while also embracing the change that the future requires.

And make no mistake—there is so much here to be proud of.

From this small school have come countless citizen soldiers, military leaders, doctors, lawyers, professional athletes, and people who dedicate their lives to serving our country in important ways.

Nearly 300 general and flag officers, in every branch of the military and even in some foreign countries. VMI graduates have served in public office in Congress, on the Supreme Court, in State Capitols, and in leadership across the private sector around the world. Seven VMI graduates have received the Medal of Honor—and one, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps our greatest alumnus, General George C. Marshall, conceived and executed the plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II—and his leadership has preserved peace for 75 years since then. Thank goodness General Marshall stood strong and persevered when Europe was in a state of disarray, and the way forward was difficult.

So don’t tell me the world doesn’t need VMI any longer—this country is crying out for the spirit of public service that so many VMI graduates have exemplified over the years.

And I know the people to continue that spirit are sitting in this room right now.

My friends, VMI is not for everyone. We all know that.

But it is a place for good and honorable people, men and women who are willing to put service before self-interest, and raise their hands in our country’s time of need to say, I will go. Send me.

My fellows Keydets, I want you to be prepared for the diverse world you will graduate into. You deserve to be prepared—and to be eager—to work and to serve with people who don’t look like you, or worship like you do, or love the people you love.

And VMI does not fail—that is not in our DNA.

VMI’s leadership has taken the steps to make VMI more inclusive because we want the ring on your finger, and the diploma you received, to be as meaningful and revered tomorrow as it is today.

VMI is preparing you for that mission, for the world you are getting ready to enter—and thank God for that.

I want you to know that as an alumnus, and as your governor, I support each and every one of you in the corps of cadets, and I have your back. I am one of you. My experience at VMI, and the way it shaped me and my life, have led me to do everything I can to make this institution we all love a better, stronger place.

I am proud of this institute, and I know you are too.

When you graduate from this place, you will be well educated. You will be physically and mentally fit. You will embody honor, dignity, and the desire to serve and help others. You will be a member of the strongest and most supportive family on earth. You will be VMI through and through—red, white, and yellow.

Keep your heads up, do good things for others, learn from your mistakes, and take care of each other and your families. Never say die, that’s the spirit of VMI.

May God bless you, your families, the Virginia Military Institute, and the United States of America. Thank you.