Sweppenhiser ’06: “The Least I Can Do for the Institute”
As a highly-recruited high school baseball player, Kelly Sweppenhiser ’06 visited many schools. While they differed in size and location, what he heard at each one ran along the same lines. “It always seemed to be about the fun I would have at college, what would happen out of the classroom and off the baseball field,” he recalled. “That didn’t click with me, because I wanted something different from my college experience.”
He found that something different at VMI. “What I heard from the coach, Tommy Slater ’90, was that, if I came to VMI, I would receive an education that would set me up for a life no one else will live, and I would have the opportunity to play great baseball.”
When asked what Slater said about the fun aspects of college life, Sweppenhiser laughed. “He said that if I wanted them, I should go somewhere else.”
If Sweppenhiser was impressed by Slater – and he was and remains so, describing him as “a man I would follow anywhere” – he was equally impressed by the players and other recruits he encountered at VMI. “They were of a different caliber than the ones I met at other schools. In the end, I realized that they wanted the same things out of college that I did, and that made me feel comfortable that I’d be successful.”
Support from the VMI Keydet Club was another important factor in his final decision to attend VMI. “I clicked with VMI, with Coach Slater and with the guys who would be my teammates. And when I received an offer of financial assistance from VMI, made available through the generosity of the Keydet Club’s donors, my way to taking a baseball path less traveled was clear,” he remembered.
At VMI, Sweppenhiser played third base and started all four years. He lettered and received many honors, including 2003 All-American, 2005-06 Big South Team All-Conference and 2006 Big South Baseball Scholar Athlete. His stellar performance earned him a spot in the VMI Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. He also excelled in the classroom, earning academic stars as an economics and business major. In 2006, based on the economics and business department’s nomination, he received the Wall Street Journal Student Achievement Award for his academic and athletic performance.
Sweppenhiser credits this success to many people, but singled out his dyke and the team’s starting second baseman, Jason Annis ’03. “He opened my eyes to all the great things VMI offered, things that would make me a well-developed student and man, not just a good baseball player. He told me to invest in the things outside of baseball, like academics, because whatever my dreams were as a ballplayer, there would be a life after the game.”
One investment Annis urged him to make was in his brother rats. “He was totally correct. Cherish them. They’ll be the cornerstone of your life. They’ll be at your wedding. They’ll send you cards when your children are born. They’ll be at your retirement party.” As for academics, “he was right there, too. Cadets must study harder than they think they need to.”
Sweppenhiser is quick to admit that personal discipline is one of the most valuable traits he brought from VMI. “When I entered the financial services field, I found myself working with people who had a strong academic preparation, but who did not have the personal discipline that I learned at VMI,” he recalled. “That discipline gave me a significant head start, and it has served me well ever since.”
According to Sweppenhiser, there is something else that sets alumni apart. “You always carry the Honor Court with you. That character integrity, coupled with your discipline and your education, will stand you in good stead, because they are the basics of sound leadership, qualities that organizations can’t home-grow.”
Yet, there is a responsibility that comes with being an alumnus, he said. “You never stop representing VMI.” At his current company, which employs 12,000 people, he is one of two alumni. “So, for many people, I represent all VMI alumni and, in a sense, VMI.”
Another responsibility, according to Sweppenhiser, is giving back to VMI. The first example he saw of this was by the father of one of his teammates, former Keydet Club president, Bill Paulette ’69. Although he had no idea of the level of Paulette’s generosity, he was struck by the way he supported the team, “the way he believed in us” and the importance he placed on supporting VMI. That example, Sweppenhiser said, was a big influence on his decision to start giving.