The Institute Society: Celebrating a Half-Century of Support

50 Years of the Institute Society


On Sunday, Nov. 10, 1974, a dedicated group of VMI supporters gathered for dinner in the Moody Hall Activities Room. The group included many well-known alumni of that era—among them, retired U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. John S. Letcher, Class of 1925, who served as the evening’s keynote speaker; retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Richard Irby, Class of 1939, then-superintendent; retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr., Class of 1917; and many others. Joining the group that evening was former Virginia Gov. Colgate Darden.

The occasion was the first Institute Society dinner, and in the half-century since then, membership in this distinguished group of Institute supporters has grown exponentially. It is far from a coincidence that, at the same time, opportunities for cadets and support for faculty have likewise expanded.

Through their gifts to the VMI Foundation, members of the Institute Society have empowered Institute leadership to offer more than would otherwise be possible. That “more” stretches across a wide range of areas, including but not limited to academic opportunities; academic support services such as the Miller Academic Center, the Writing Center, and the Mathematics Education Resource Center; support for faculty salaries; and club sports.

The society “has been exceptional in fulfilling the vision of its creators,” noted Meade King ’85, VMI Foundation chief operating officer and Alumni Agencies director of advancement.

guests seated at round dining tables, clapping

Now, more than 600 individuals attend the Institute Society Dinner each year, which honors their support of VMI and is held in Marshall Hall – Center for Leadership and Ethics.

Under the leadership of Joe Neikirk, Class of 1932, then-executive vice president of the VMI Foundation, the Institute Society was established in May 1973 by the VMI Foundation Board of Trustees to recognize alumni and friends of the Institute whose unrestricted financial support to VMI was “above the ordinary, constant, and generous.”

During its first year, the society gained the support of 143 charter members. Then, as now, there was a wide spread of ages. In 1974, the oldest was George D. Brooke, Class of 1900, and the youngest was James A. Griffin ’63. Three of those original charter members—George Ramsey ’48B, Bruce Gottwald ’54, and G.G. Phillips ’60—are still Institute supporters today.

Letcher, whose father and five uncles were all graduates of the Institute and deeply engaged in its affairs, underscored the importance of the society’s mission in the keynote address he gave at that first dinner: “The mission of the society must be to add each year to the financial resources of the Institute so that the excellence of the training and education given can be continued and improved to the end that present and future cadets will continue to make the Institute heard from in future years.”

In that first fiscal year, members of the Institute Society gave $155,000, which equates to roughly $1.1 million in today’s dollars. Perhaps more importantly, that $155,000 made up a substantial chunk of the $544,000 the Foundation gave to VMI in Fiscal Year 1974.

A comparison to today’s giving is staggering: In Fiscal Year 2023, the nearly 900 members of the Institute Society provided $20.8 million in support. Having long since outgrown the relatively modest capacity of the Moody Hall Activities Room, the black-tie Institute Society Dinner, hosted by the VMI Alumni Agencies in grateful acknowledgment of these donors’ generous support, is now held in the more spacious Marshall Hall.

And while Institute Society members provide VMI with critically needed financial resources, they also provide something less measurable but equally important: A base of friendship and allegiance that goes a long way.

“It’s not just the money that comes from a membership like that,” said King. “It’s wisdom. It’s advice when asked. It’s a vote of confidence. It’s a group of people that can be relied on to be advocates for VMI. It’s a group of people who know a little bit more than the next person about all things VMI.”

Plans are already underway for a 50th anniversary celebration of this dedicated group’s exceptional support, to be held Nov. 8, 2024. And even today, it’s clear that Letcher’s vision for the society, as expressed in his speech in 1974, has come true: “It is my hope that our society will increase yearly in membership so that our support will become greater each year and of greater value to VMI. … It is our great privilege to make our contribution to the welfare and advancement of VMI so that future generations of cadets will be of the quality that distinguished their forebears.”

  • Christian Heilman

    Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content

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