Hall ’65 Receives VMI Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award
Conrad M. Hall ’65, former VMI Foundation president and VMI Board of Visitors member, received the VMI Foundation Distinguished Service Award during the Founders Day Convocation at Cameron Hall Nov. 10, 2023. The presentation was made by Ernesto V. Sampson ’98, VMI Foundation president.
The VMI Foundation Board of Trustees presented this award to Hall in recognition of his professional accomplishments, which included being the chief executive officer of Dominion Enterprises from 1989–2009, during which he led its transformation into a leading national media, internet, and marketing information services company, and his remarkable record of service to various charities and civic organizations, such as the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, the ACCESS College Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Virginia Historical Society. Hall also has served on the governing boards of Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, and Eastern Virginia Medical School. He established a chair in American constitutional history at Norfolk State University and a chair in surgical oncology at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
It also recognized Hall’s extensive service to VMI. He joined the VMI Foundation Board of Trustees in 1995, serving for 17 years, and was the organization’s president from 2002–04. He was a founder and the inaugural chairman of VMI Investment Holdings, LLC; vice chairman of VMI’s most recent fundraising campaign, An Uncommon Purpose; and an inaugural member of the Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III 1962 Endowment for Academic Excellence cabinet. Hall’s philanthropy to VMI has been consistent and generous. 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 joined the VMI Board of Visitors in 2014 and served until 2022.
In his remarks prior to presenting the DSA, Sampson, who served with Hall on the BOV, said, “I have seen [Hall] apply his talents and experience to the work of VMI and the betterment of our cadets. I have heard him speak forcefully about VMI’s importance to our state and country, as well as provide quiet, yet powerful advice.” He continued with advice to the cadets: “If you are seeking someone to emulate throughout the rest of your cadet experience and after graduation, Conrad Hall would be a fantastic choice.”
In his remarks to the assembly—which included many of Hall’s brother rats, family, and friends, many of VMI’s faculty and staff, and the entire Corps of Cadets—Hall touched on the early history of the Institute. He described how Francis Henney Smith—a 27-year-old mathematics professor and graduate of West Point—created something new, a state-supported military college driven by a “fundamental strategy to produce citizen-soldiers.” Hall stressed that, at the time VMI was founded, “The word ‘citizen’ had a stronger meaning. … It embraced the notion of service and responsibility to one’s fellow man, community, and nation and not merely what is stamped on a passport. … Civic engagement went hand in hand with responsibility, duty, and sacrifice. VMI’s founders had that understanding of the word and placed it equal to soldier. And in that regard, I would ask that you please keep in mind that citizenship is a practice, a practice for each of us.”
According to Hall, the effectiveness of the educational model that Smith established was evident in the amazing level of accomplishment of the Institute’s first graduates. The 16 men who graduated in 1842 would go to become lawyers, teachers, politicians, and educators, as well as military officers. He also touched on Smith’s concentration on “what he thought was the most important lesson to be learned at VMI, personal responsibility. [Smith] said, ‘This institution happily conspirers to help you in this work, not by diminishing your responsibility, but by defining and enforcing it.’”
This determination to cultivate personal responsibility, Hall pointed out, was reflected in his cadet experience and the experience of today’s cadets. “We are presented with an entirely new way of thinking about what is expected, ways of conducting ourselves, placing others above self, personal responsibility, embracing a code of honor, civility, and military discipline. And what makes this process so very successful is that it is implemented by cadets. … Cadet leadership is one of the most important components of what makes VMI unique and must always be maintained.”
“You will soon,” Hall told the cadets, “join the legions of alumni to assume positions of responsibility across many areas of service and employment. Our country needs you more than ever. You [will] graduate with a decided advantage, and the military, public service, corporate America, the professions … will seek you out because they know from where you have come. You will most decidedly not be an ordinary college graduate.”
Hall urged cadets “to take full advantage of your years at VMI and its uniqueness, yes, its uniqueness, because that is why you are here.” He ended by saying, “I am forever grateful to have been a VMI cadet as my entire life has been built on what was learned here. And I say with great confidence, great confidence, that the members of the Corps will one day make the very same conclusion.”
After the ceremony, Sampson commented, “Conrad Hall has brought immense credit to VMI and provided an example of how to lead a truly meaningful life.”
Hall ’65 Distinguished Service Award Resolution
WHEREAS, CONRAD MERCER HALL, a 1965 graduate of Virginia Military Institute, was a civil engineering major and a cadet lieutenant and involved in many cadet activities; and
WHEREAS, in the best tradition of the VMI citizen-soldier, MR. HALL a Distinguished Military Graduate, served as an air defense artillery officer in the United States Army from 1966 to 1968; and
WHEREAS, after receiving a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Virginia in 1970, MR. HALL joined Landmark Communications, Inc., and remained with the company and its affiliates until his 2009 retirement, and, from 1989, as CEO of Dominion Enterprises, led its transformation into a leading national media, internet, and marketing information services company; and
WHEREAS, MR. HALL has selflessly served many civic and charitable organizations in Virginia, including Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and the ACCESS College Foundation; and
WHEREAS, a staunch advocate of the advancement of higher education in Virginia, he has 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; and
WHEREAS, his life-long 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 and to author a book on the history of Mathews County, Virginia; and
WHEREAS, MR. HALL joined the Board of Trustees of the VMI Foundation in 1995 and served for 17 years and was the VMI Foundation’s president from 2002 to 2004 and was a founder and the inaugural chairman of VMI Investment Holdings, LLC; and
WHEREAS, he joined the VMI Board of Visitors in 2014 and served until 2022, applying his experience and wisdom to the task of advancing the Institute; and
WHEREAS, he has given consistently and generously to the Institute since 1965 and 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; and
WHEREAS, he was the vice chairman of VMI’s fundraising campaign, entitled An Uncommon Purpose, and is an inaugural member of the cabinet of the Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III 1962 Endowment for Academic Excellence; and
WHEREAS, his professional successes and public service have brought great credit to the Institute and his unwavering dedication to VMI has made it a better and stronger college;
THEREFORE, the Board of Trustees of the VMI Foundation recognizes CONRAD MERCER HALL by presenting him with its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award.
November 10, 2023
Remarks from Conrad M. Hall ’65 Upon Receiving VMI Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award
Mr. Sampson, thank you for that most generous introduction. Needless to say, this is the honor of a lifetime, one that I never imagined ever receiving, one I now most humbly accept. Please think of me as merely a representative of the countless numbers of VMI alumni who have served the Institute from its very beginning. They have done it out of a desire to help make it possible for cadets to experience what they experienced, and to have the benefits that followed through their entire lives.
I am especially pleased that my roommate, Irwin McCumber, and his wife, Linda, are here. Irwin and I have been together for many years, both professionally and as dear friends. Sadly … our roommate, Clifford Bridges Fleet Jr., died just eight weeks ago. Fleet, as I called him, was one who always had a smile, one who never met a stranger, and one who will be greatly missed. I am honored that his son, Cliff, who is my godson, is here. And Cliff, your father’s brother rats, and I are most appreciative of your coming to VMI, standing in, as it were, for your father.
Standing before you is obviously a member of the very Old Corps, a member of the outstanding class, the Great Class of 1965. And yes, there is such a thing as the Old Corps, and one day you, too, will become a member. However, the Old Corps is not and never has been some mythical VMI utopia from years gone by because change is a constant, and VMI and the Corps have evolved over its 184 years—adjusting to all the forces driving the evolution of the United States—and it will continue to do so. However, what amazes observers is the retention of its core values that everyone here knows so well. This was eloquently presented to me and to many of you by the graduation exercises this past May. The valedictorian, Samuel H. Wolfe [’23], and the class president, Cameron M. Cavanaugh [’23], gave excellent graduation speeches. Their remarks captured the essence of VMI’s values and standards, VMI’s unique method of education, its sacred honor system, the very special bond within each class, and especially their stressing the responsibilities upon each graduate to serve in the very best traditions of a citizen-soldier.
On a personal note, Nov. 11 happens to be the date my wife, Peggy, died four years ago after a torturous battle with cancer. Over the almost 50 years we were together, she cheerfully supported my involvement with VMI, but early on, she decided to reduce her frequency of trips to Lexington. She observed, correctly, that when VMI people are together, all they talk about is VMI. Further, she could repeat verbatim stories she had heard more than once. She is smiling on us this afternoon as we again share VMI stories, and she is especially sympathetic to you, the Corps of Cadets, for having to listen to me.
However, she would be the first to acknowledge that the story of VMI is a great and proud one, one that deserves to be told. And with that in mind, I would like to share some of the early history of the Institute with you. We begin with a brief revisit of our founding day.
On Monday morning, Nov. 11, 184 years ago tomorrow, Francis Henney Smith, born in Norfolk, Virginia, and a graduate of the United States Military Academy, Class of 1833, became the first professor of the Virginia Military Institute with the rank of major. The title of superintendent came at a later date. In 1835, at the age of 23, Smith married Sarah Henderson, and together, they had seven children. After graduating from West Point, he served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army as an artillery officer until May 1836, at which time he joined the faculty of Hampden-Sydney College as a professor of mathematics. He remained there until coming to VMI.
In 1839, VMI was a first—Virginia being the very first state to sponsor a military college. On that Nov. 11 morning, Major Smith reported to the 10-member Board of Visitors for the very first time; he had previously never met any of them. He had been hired, imagine, hired based solely on his reputation, a reputation established over a very short time. He had just celebrated his 27th birthday in October. Think of the responsibility at age 27, creating a new school, not an ordinary college, but a unique school—one of a kind, literally—with meager resources and scarce support. His responsibilities, in addition to being the equivalent of president, included being the commandant; he was in charge of administration, finance, the curriculum, teaching, and various construction projects; and maintaining correspondence with parents, the BOV, the Lexington community, and the Virginia state legislature.
In the afternoon of the 11th, snow was falling, and it was to be a very cold winter. In that setting, Major Smith issued Order No. 1, which made leadership assignments among the 28 cadets present. It ordered each cadet to collect their first two textbooks, one on algebra and the other on French, and he ordered: “One sentinel will be habitually posted at the main gate.” His order for a sentinel has endured for 184 years, as have many of his policies and methods of education—in particular, small classes and frequent recitation. The faculty that fall numbered just two, Smith and J.T.L. Preston. Those first cadets lived in spartan conditions: No running water and heat from fireplaces. Classes met primarily in several log cabins, and the Parade Ground of today was mostly a corn field. It was not until 1915 that running water was piped into each room—that is to say, cold water. Hot water came in 1936.
Our founders had a very clear set of objectives in creating Virginia Military Institute. It was to be much, much more than a college, rather a college with military training, shall we say, continuous military training, as we know so well. And thus, the word “Institute,” defined as “an organization having a particular factor, especially a scientific, educational or social one.” The curriculum consisted of required courses for all cadets; there were no electives, required courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, tactics, French, German, and English languages, and, interestingly, German literature.
Our founders had a fundamental strategy to produce “citizen-soldiers.” A large standing army at the time was not thought feasible; however, the War of 1812 was a reminder of the potential need for homeland defense capabilities, made up primarily of volunteers who could be mobilized with short notice.
The word “citizen” had a stronger meaning in the 19th century than today. It embraced the notion of service and responsibility to one’s fellow man, community, and nation and not merely what is stamped on a passport. Interestingly, the etymology of the word “citizen” comes from the Latin words “corona civica” or civic crown. Civic crown was the highest honor given to a Roman soldier; it was to honor one who had saved the life of a fellow soldier in battle. The important words, civil, civility, citizen, city, civilization flow from it. To be an effective citizen required one to be engaged for the common good. Civic engagement went hand in hand with responsibility, duty, and sacrifice. VMI’s founders had that understanding of the word and placed it equal to soldier. And in that regard, I would ask that you please keep in mind that citizenship is a practice, a practice for each of us, and not merely a status.
Three years after that 11th day in November 1839, July 4, 1842, 16 cadets graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, and the next day, July 5, they created what is now known as the VMI Alumni Agencies. It has made it possible, literally, with its financial support, for VMI to continue in existence as we know it. The diploma you will receive upon graduation is essentially identical to those awarded in 1842, and it is thought to be the only diploma of any school in the United States to be signed by a state governor. The diploma you will receive contains an image of George Washington, whom Smith considered to be the embodiment of a citizen-soldier. VMI produced its own embodiment of a citizen-soldier, George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901. He served as chief of staff of the Army, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. He created the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.
"I say most sincerely that I am forever grateful to have been a VMI cadet, as my entire life has been built on what was learned here."Conrad M. Hall ’65
Our first graduates brought attention and acclaim to VMI by contributions in many ways over their paths through life. I share with you an accounting of their remarkable careers, keeping in mind that most held more than one position: I find it to also be an amazing testament to the education they received. Here is the Class of 1842: There were four lawyers; one dentist; two school principals, including the head of Norfolk Academy; a teacher; the treasurer of the state of Kansas; a newspaper editor; a member of the Virginia House of Delegates; a member of the Virginia Senate; one surgeon; one college president; four farmers; a [U.S.] senator of California; [and] one corporate president. There were 10 holding the rank of colonel or captain, and of special note, you will not guess this, one served as the rector of the University of Virginia. And yes, tragically, three of the 16 members of the Class of 1842 were killed in combat during the Civil War. The VMI Class of 1842, the first class to graduate, clearly met the standard of being citizen-soldiers, a standard that has been maintained ever since as VMI graduates have contributed to our nation and society in measures far beyond our numbers.
The years following 1842 were ones of significant growth in the size of the Corps of Cadets, faculty, infrastructure, and especially the reputation [of] VMI and its graduates. Smith presided over the great expansion of the Institute, its reconstruction after being destroyed during the Civil War, and its ever-increasing importance to national security, industry, and public service. He was the author of three textbooks on algebra, statistical arithmetic, and analytical geometry, and he wrote two books on education, including one entitled “College Reform.”
On Sept. 10, 1866, the first academic day following the destruction of VMI during the Civil War, Smith addressed the 16 cadets who had returned; the number would soon grow to 55. In his speech, he stressed at several points what he thought was the most important lesson to be learned at VMI: Personal responsibility. He said, “This institution happily conspires to help you in this work, not by diminishing your responsibility, but by defining and enforcing it.” He went on to say, “The most casual observer cannot fail to notice that one of the chief peculiarities, and may I say, excellences of this institution, consists in the complete supervision it exercises over every part of a cadet’s life.” I think we can agree that nothing has changed on that point.
Remarkably, he would serve as superintendent for 50 years. Smith’s creativity, intellect, willingness to take well-calculated risks, leadership, fundraising skills, dedication, and hard work set the foundation for the VMI we know today. As with George C. Marshall, he is a perfect example of what one leader can accomplish. In my mind, Francis Henney Smith is the father of the Institute, and tomorrow, I ask that you think of that 27-year-old, the challenges he faced on that 11th of November, and what he subsequently accomplished.
When my brother rats and I matriculated Sept. 13, 1961, I … had no real understanding of what it meant to be a rat. In the early days of the Rat Line, there are moments when most have thoughts of it being impossible to survive, impossible to carry on. So, what happens during those months that become remarkably transformative? At a very basic level, it begins in the barracks, the barracks in which one is completely removed from the ease of civilian life, from one’s background and privileges, and placed under deliberate and extreme conditions. And surprisingly to many at first, implemented and led by upperclassmen. It is also the reorientation of most of what we brought with us in our memories from past experiences. We are presented with an entirely new way of thinking about what is expected, ways of conducting ourselves, placing others above self, personal responsibility, and embracing a code of honor, civility, and military discipline. And what makes this process so very successful is that it is implemented by cadets, leadership of the Corps of Cadets, by cadets. Cadet leadership is one of the most important components of what makes VMI unique and must always be maintained. The efficiency of that process, and our adversarial system of education, has been proven over and over again for 184 years and will continue to do so long into the future.
To the members of the Corps, you will soon—sooner than you think—join the legions of alumni to assume positions of responsibility across many areas of service and employment. Our country needs you more than ever as regrettably, many of your peers in traditional colleges have yet to learn the meaning of selfless service to society and personal responsibility. Many have moved through a system that has not always prepared them for life’s challenges. Many have strange notions of entitlement. Some cannot distinguish between right and wrong. And yes, regrettably, many of them would never think of service in the military. You, however, will graduate with a decided advantage, and the military, public service, corporate America, the professions: Teaching, medicine, engineering, the law—the list goes on—will seek you because they know from where you have come. You will most decidedly not be an ordinary college graduate.
I urge you to take full advantage of your years at VMI and its uniqueness; yes, its uniqueness, because that is why you are here. Keep in mind that you will probably never be members of anything better for you ever again. I can attest to these factors—first, that the more difficult it is for you, the better you will be for having persevered. Second, there will never be another time when you will have a better opportunity to learn, to learn about yourself, to build confidence, competency, and leadership skills, and third, never ever again will you be among better friends—friends you will have for the rest of your life.
In the years ahead, I most hope that each of you will have a goal of serving VMI in some way. I urge you to help others to come to the Institute. Your personal influence on encouraging young people to consider VMI will be especially meaningful. As your financial resources allow, your support of the Alumni Agencies will be needed. Many of you understand the importance of that as you are beneficiaries of scholarships made possible by those who have gone before you. The VMI as we know it today, literally, would not exist without the support of the alumni. And in time, I urge each of you to carry on that obligation to the best of your ability.
This member of the very Old Corps thanks you for this high honor, the honor of a lifetime, and the privilege to be with you this afternoon. I say most sincerely that I am forever grateful to have been a VMI cadet, as my entire life has been built on what was learned here. And I say with great confidence, great confidence, that you, the members of the Corps, will one day make … the very same conclusion.
My very best wishes go to each and every member of this most outstanding Corps of Cadets as you continue your journey and opportunity of a lifetime and go on to join the ranks of VMI alumni. And rats, take heart; you have endured the brunt of the Rat Line—well, maybe not quite all of it—but be confident that you are on course toward becoming the Class of 2027.
I am most proud of all of you; proud of you for having selected the most challenging path through higher education in the United States and for your commitment to becoming citizen-soldiers. As the inscription on the parapet so eloquently states, you are in fact “a band of honorable youths,” and in time, you will be “fair specimens of citizen-soldiers.”
I wish you good health and a long life of service to your country, community, and families. And in closing, may the good Lord bless Virginia Military Institute and each and every one of you.
Q&A With Hall ’65
Q: Why did you attend VMI?
A: My father wanted very much to be a cadet, but family financial reversals on the eve of the Great Depression denied him the opportunity. He graduated first in his high school class and thus had no difficulty finding good employment. He helped finance the college education of his younger brother, who served in Army Air Corps during World War II and ended up as a navigator on a B-17 until he was shot down over Germany and spent the last six months of the war in a prison camp. So, I went to Lexington as my father had wished to do.
Q: You studied civil engineering at VMI, but after your military service, you earned an MBA at the University of Virginia’s Colgate W. Darden School of Business and then pursued a business career. What prompted you to follow that professional direction?
A: I studied engineering at VMI in preparation for becoming an architect, and I had only modest success in my studies. However, I wrote a paper on the then-esoteric subject of solar energy that, to the surprise of everyone, won a state-wide competition. During my time in the Army, however, I concluded I didn’t have the creativity necessary to be a successful architect and became interested in business. Happily, in May 1968, when I left the Army, MBAs were in great demand. I still enjoy architecture as a hobby, but business was a better career choice for me.
Q: Which lessons learned at VMI have stuck with you throughout your career?
A: Humility, putting others above self, leadership by example, and thinking strategically. To those, I’d add that you learn you’re capable of far more than you thought possible and to never give up regardless of how difficult challenges are. Finally, the most important lesson taught at VMI is personal responsibility.
Q: You have given no small amount of talent and time to public service. Much of that service has been in support of higher education—and not just VMI. What has motivated you to be involved with colleges and universities?
A: How to make colleges and universities more effective and relevant—given the erosion of available resources, political debates, and societal changes—is a fascinating topic, especially now, when many people are questioning many long-held assumptions about higher education. Current politics and the erosion of state funding are just two of the significant challenges facing colleges and universities as they go about their work of producing graduates who will be effective citizens. Answering those challenges will, in some cases, require new approaches and, in others, a return to fundamentals. I have found that non-academics can bring fresh perspectives to how higher education shapes its future.
Q: You have an enduring interest in American history, especially the history of Virginia and the Early Republic. You have been on the board of Colonial Williamsburg and the Virginia Historical Society, and you established the Conrad M. Hall ’65 Chair in American Constitutional History at VMI and likewise at Norfolk State University. Why was it important to you to fund those chairs?
A: The lack of history in elementary and secondary education is appalling, deplorable, irresponsible, and un-American, and it must be corrected immediately. How can there be an informed citizenry, an informed electorate, without a common understanding of how our government was designed and how it works, of our nation’s basic origins, etc.? The chairs are a very small step toward filling the gaps in the education of students at Norfolk State and VMI. I hope all colleges will one day offer courses in constitutional history and make them a prerequisite for graduation.
Q: You were a trustee of the VMI Foundation—twice—and served as its president. You helped lead major fundraising campaigns, and you are a member of the Peay Endowment cabinet. You were also on the VMI Board of Visitors for eight years. Why did you start serving VMI? What were the rewards of doing so?
A: Many VMI graduates seek to provide some sort of assistance to the Institute because they eventually realize how important being a cadet was to what became their futures. As with most volunteer activities, the highest reward is meeting wonderful people you might otherwise never know.
Q: You have donated to the Institute since 1965. Why have you sustained that philanthropy?
A: It was the least I could do in appreciation for a life-transforming four years.
Q: If any alumni or friends of VMI asked you why he or she should serve VMI and/or give to it, how would you answer?
A: Supporting VMI in some way helps make it possible for the Institute to carry on its mission to produce the capable and honorable citizen-soldiers our nation needs more than ever.
Q: What were your thoughts when you were told the VMI Foundation had decided to present the Distinguished Service Award to you?
A: Not to accept it, as there are so many other alumni who deserve it.
Q: If I haven’t touched on something you’d like to address, you have the last word.
A: Alumni need to close ranks and help the Institute as it goes forward in these challenging times. We can greatly help VMI by urging promising high school students to become cadets and by providing opportunities for internships for our cadets and employment for our graduates. We all should strive to be leading citizen-soldiers in our communities in the very best VMI tradition. In this way, we will contribute to society far beyond our numbers and yet again prove that graduates of Virginia Military Institute are a priceless gift to the nation.
Scott Belliveau '83 Communications Officer - Executive Projects
The communications officer supports the strategy for all communications, including web content, public relations messages and collateral pieces in order to articulate and promote the mission of the VMI Alumni Agencies and promote philanthropy among varied constituencies.