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VMI Celebrates Founders Day, Honors Alumnus

Conrad M. Hall smiling and talking with cadets

On the 184th anniversary of VMI’s founding, the Corps of Cadets, along with faculty, staff, alumni, and special guests, gathered in Cameron Hall to celebrate Founders Day and to honor Conrad M. Hall ’65, the Distinguished Service Award recipient, Nov. 10, 2023.—VMI Alumni Agencies photo.

VMI celebrated the 184th anniversary of its founding one day early. It was Nov. 11, 1839, when 23 young Virginians were mustered into the service of the state and, in falling snow, the first cadet sentry—John B. Strange, Class of 1842, of Scottsville—took his post.

This year’s celebration was observed with a full schedule of events beginning with Rat Olympics held in the Corps Physical Training Facility. Rat Olympics is a competition between the rats of each company and the culmination of Rat Challenge, a vigorous 10-week program that provides leadership opportunities for upperclass cadets while at the same time stretching rats physically and mentally and enabling each of them to overcome any self-imposed limits that they may confront. It included track and field matches, a high ropes course, a 34-foot-high rock climbing wall, and tug-of-war competitions. Rat Olympics focuses on health and fitness, teamwork, strategy, overcoming mental obstacles, and maintaining a positive and helpful attitude.

The Corps of Cadets, along with faculty, staff, alumni, and special guests, joined in Cameron Hall to honor Conrad M. Hall ’65 as the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award, the VMI Foundation’s highest honor. First presented in 1969, the Distinguished Service Award recognizes alumni and friends whose service to the Institute, dedication to the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies, and career achievements and distinctions are exceptionally commendable. Hall is the 76th recipient of the award.

Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, opened the ceremony and reminded guests that Founders Day is a day to remember VMI’s beginnings and to look to the future. “Society and education have changed in the past two centuries, and VMI continues to remain at the forefront of modern education,” he said. Wins reported that opportunities for cadets have expanded beyond Limits Gates, and cadets are able to study and research all over the world. “We are committed to this education model because we know it is grounded on a firm foundation and has proven effective.” Wins continued by stating that VMI graduates are successful because of the focus on the important fundamentals that will never change. “We focus on the values upon which VMI is built: Honor, excellence, self-discipline, courage, esprit de corps, resilience, and selfless service.” He then invited Ernesto V. Sampson ’98, VMI Foundation president, to join him on the stage to introduce Hall.

Sampson shared that he has known Hall for a long time and that Hall is someone whose dedication and service to his country, his state, his community, and the Institute are truly exemplary. To the cadets, he advised, “All of us have engaged in emulation. We see someone living and working by consistently high standards of conduct of character and we want to be like him or her. Often the most powerful advice we receive is unspoken, but a life well lived. If you are seeking someone to emulate throughout the rest of your life, and your cadet experience, Conrad Hall is a person and a fantastic choice.” To the entire audience he said, “I’ve seen Conrad apply his talents and experience to the work of VMI and the betterment of our cadets. I’ve heard him speak forcefully about VMI to our state and our country therefore it is my privilege to present him with the Foundation’s highest honor.”

Hall earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from VMI and was a distinguished military graduate. He commissioned into the U.S. Army and served as an air defense artillery officer from 1966–68. After receiving a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Virginia in 1970, Hall joined Landmark Communications, Inc., and remained with the company and its affiliates until his retirement in 2009. From 1989–2009, Hall was chief executive officer of Dominion Enterprises and was responsible for its transformation into a leading national media, internet, and marketing information services company that served employment, automotive, real estate, marine, recreation, and industrial markets in the U.S. and internationally. Under his leadership, Dominion created more than 20 market-leading websites, including AutoTrader.com, ForRent.com, and YachtWorld.com. In addition, the company published more than 500 magazine titles with a combined monthly circulation of 2 million copies.

“The first class to graduate clearly met the standards of being citizen-soldiers, a standard that has been maintained ever since."

Conrad M. Hall ’65

Hall has served many civic and charitable organizations in Virginia, including Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, and the ACCESS College Foundation. A staunch advocate of the advancement of higher education throughout the Commonwealth, he served on the governing boards of Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, and Eastern Virginia Medical School, and established a chair in American constitutional history at Norfolk State University, and a chair in surgical oncology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. His lifelong interest in American history prompted him to serve on the boards of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Colonial Williamsburg Company, and the Virginia Historical Society. He also authored a book on the history of Mathews County titled, “A Select History of Mathews County, Virginia: 17th, 18th & 19th Centuries and the Family of Ann and Robert Hall.”

Hall joined the Board of Trustees of the VMI Foundation in 1995 and served as a trustee for a total of 17 years. He was the VMI Foundation’s president from 2002–04 and in that role, an ex-officio member of the boards of the VMI Alumni Association and the VMI Keydet Club. He was a founder and the inaugural chairman of VMI Investment Holdings, LLC. He joined the VMI Board of Visitors in 2014 and served until 2022. A consistent donor to VMI since 1965, he has given in support of various programs. He established the Elsie and Otey Williams Hall Scholarship in memory of his parents and the Conrad M. Hall ’65 Chair in American Constitutional History in 2017. He also was the vice chairman of VMI’s fundraising campaign, An Uncommon Purpose, and is an inaugural member of the cabinet of the Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III 1962 Endowment for Academic Excellence.

With humility, gratitude, and thanks, Hall accepted the award. He opened his acceptance speech with humor and encouragement for the rats in attendance. “Allow me to set the record straight. Early on in my cadetship, I received invitations to appear before the Rat Disciplinary Committee, which in those days met on the convenient hour of midnight. I was called into my faculty advisor’s office, and he explained to me in no uncertain terms that my academic performance had been less than satisfactory. And, in fact, I had been a great disappointment to the civil engineering department,” he quipped.

Taking a more serious tone, Hall remembered all who served in the military and VMI alumni who lost their lives in war. He also shared VMI’s rich history of a young Francis Smith, who, at 27, faced the daunting responsibility of creating a new school. “His responsibilities were being the equivalent of a college president, as well as commandant. He was in charge of administration, the curriculum, teaching, and corresponding with parents and community.” Hall shared that even then, Smith stressed the concept of a citizen-soldier. “The first class to graduate clearly met the standards of being citizen-soldiers, a standard that has been maintained ever since, as VMI graduates have contributed to a nation’s security at home and abroad,” he said.

In closing, Hall stated, “Thank you for this high honor of a lifetime. I say most sincerely that I’m forever grateful to have been a VMI cadet, as my entire life has been built on what was learned here. My very best wishes go to each and every member of this Corps of Cadets. I’m most proud of all of you, proud of you for having selected the most challenging path through higher education in the United States. I wish you good health and long life serving your country, community, and families. May the good Lord bless the Virginia Military Institute and each and every one of you.”

The day concluded with a parade in which Hall took review with Wins and the Cadet Battery firing 13 rounds from the howitzers.