Mumford ’19: Telling VMI’s Story
Lexington, Virginia: A picture-perfect day under a clear blue sky. High above the thick green grass flags wave gently in the breeze. People are milling around, making small talk. They meander toward their seats and turn their faces toward the flags, anticipating. In barracks, the Corps stands ready.
A smooth, steady voice – evoking the heyday of evening news announcers – calmly begins narration for a VMI activity nearly as old as the Institute itself: A parade. Parades mark nearly every major event at VMI, and from his 3rd Class year through his graduation in May 2019, Nathan Mumford ’19 served as the voice of Institute parades.
“It’s like telling a story,” he said of his duties. He tells a brief history of VMI and has narrated this story to countless audiences. Akin to postal carriers, he has told the story under rain, sleet, snow and even – occasionally – on one those nearly mythical picture-perfect blue sky days, when the breeze is enough to cool, but not freeze, with the sun gently comforting instead of scorching. He has told the story to remember VMI’s beginnings, to honor the sacrifice of her alumni through the years, to mark Parents Weekends and reunions and retirements, and on many, many ordinary Fridays.
Carrying himself gracefully, Mumford is the impeccably uniformed cadet heard by every person attending a parade, but seen by few. Standing behind the reviewing pad, he carries a script in his hand, and guides the audience through the parade.
Mumford came into the job through the Glee Club, a favorite among his numerous extracurricular activities. He began performing with the Glee Club while he was still in the Rat Line. Although he takes great joy in singing and performing, some of his affection for Glee Club stems from the reprieve it gave him while he was a rat. “There’s something about being together with a lot of other people just like you, and just singing a song together,” he said. Following Mondays and Thursdays at Glee Club, he felt happier and “remotivated” to return to the Rat Line.
Safely out of the Rat Line and well into his 3rd Class year, Mumford had a speaking part during a Glee Club rendition of “America the Beautiful,” reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during the song. One of Mumford’s brother rats and fellow Glee-clubber, Quinn Conrad ’19, heard him speaking and saw an opportunity. Conrad was part of the S5 staff, and knew there was a search for a new parade announcer. She thought Mumford would fit the bill nicely.
He auditioned and – as the ubiquitous “they” say – the rest is history. Although he had performed with both the Glee Club and VMI theater, serving as the parade announcer was – as are many things at VMI – well out of Mumford’s comfort zone.
Initially, it was “terrifying,” he recalled. “I was really nervous about getting everything right. It was the weight of – if I messed up here, all these people in the audience would hear, and the entire Corps would know.”
Soon, however, he relaxed, realizing that the regimental commander and the Corps knew exactly what to do – and that his role was “like telling a story.” The story of VMI’s history, plus an explanation of what the Corps is doing during the parade are Mumford’s “favorite things” about the position.
“When I’m giving the narration for the parade, this is the first time the public gets to see the Corps in action. And if it wasn’t narrated, they would have no idea what is going on,” he said. “For example, the regimental commander is leading the Corps through the rifle manual. The public’s looking at it like, ‘What is happening right now?’ And I get to tell them that this is the same manual of arms and the same rifle manual that’s been used since 1776. I also get the honor of shouting out my brother rats’ names as they march their companies past. That’s the most rewarding part.”
During his cadetship, Mumford could be spotted all around post. He played numerous roles on the stage at Gillis Theater, including portraying early African-American characters in Rockbridge County history; sang with – as previously mentioned – the Glee Club; was elected by his peers as a prosecutor on the Honor Court; and served on the S5 public relations staff, planning and working on recruiting events, Legacy Day, convocations, open houses and – of course – narrating parades. Mumford also had several jobs, including food service in the PX, Crozet and for catering; as a cadet caller in the Alumni Agencies’ call center; and as a tour guide.
He put his speaking skills to good use as a tour guide, sharing his own experience at VMI with visitors. He always stopped his tour group under the Parapet, with his own back to the inscription. With a brief introduction of the founders’ vision for VMI, Mumford – who slipped into his “parade” voice when describing these memories – would proceed to recite the inscription from memory and watch the visitors “light up” when they realized what he was reciting: The inscription on the Parapet.
While all rats are required to memorize the inscription on the Parapet, Mumford said he “really took it to heart.” Like many cadets, he passes by it frequently, and it reminds him of why he came to VMI – and why he stayed. “It’s a vision I still believe in.”
Answering the inevitable question – why choose VMI? – posed to all alumni, Mumford remembered his parents liking VMI first. “My parents fell in love with VMI before I did,” he said. Like many teenagers, he wanted the opposite of whatever his parents suggested. An overnight visit to the Institute changed Mumford’s perspective. Now a well-spoken, confident young man, Mumford recalls being “super nervous” during his visit. “I don’t think I spoke more than two words the entire night.” What he remembers more, and what propelled him to attend VMI was “the feeling I left with.” For one night, he lived in the shadow of cadets: He heard their stories, saw how they carried themselves, experienced a tiny slice of life at VMI and “wanted more.”
While in high school, Mumford met VMI alumnus Sean Lanier ’94 at a college fair. Lanier was able to provide guidance and answer questions for Mumford before Matriculation. The two have kept in touch throughout Mumford’s cadetship.
“He’s the same core person who came to VMI. From the day I met him, I knew he would do well at VMI,” Lanier said. “VMI enhances and teaches kids who already have a determination and foundation. I’ve seen a level of maturation in him, a level of service. He has a lack of selfishness and puts his own needs last.”
Considering his cadetship, Mumford said his VMI education went far beyond simply learning time management and self-discipline. “VMI has really prepared me to push myself for the next thing. It taught me that the only limitations I have are imposed upon me by myself,” he said. “It’s taught me not to be afraid of doing hard things, or saying yes to new challenges and new experiences.”
From the inscription in Old Barracks, he quoted: “‘You may be whatever you resolve to be,’” and added, “It’s as simple as that. Simple, and true.”