When I talk to young people who say they are interested in going to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) or a federal service academy, I always ask them: Are you sure you want this? I remind them that there are plenty of easier ways to earn a college degree, but if that’s what they want, go for it.
With that in mind, imagine the reaction my wife and I had when we were sitting around the dinner table one evening in 1988 talking with our teenage daughter about where she might want to attend college.
Because she had strong academic and extracurricular activity records, not to mention high SAT scores, she could think about applying to some highly competitive colleges. That’s when she dropped a bombshell on us by saying, “I think I might be interested in the Air Force Academy.”
After picking ourselves up off of the floor, her mother and I asked why she was interested in the U.S. Air Force Academy. She mentioned the appeal of the challenge it offered, the desire to do something different and the prospect of learning to fly.
No doubt, some of her interest came from family. One of her grandfathers was a decorated World War II veteran and had been a professor at VMI. I had graduated from VMI. Her mother grew up on the VMI post. Both of her uncles and two of her first cousins were institute alumni.
You therefore would think she would be interested in VMI. But the school still was all-male then and would not open its doors for women until 1997, after being ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court the previous year.
By her junior year of high school, she was ready to begin the arduous process of applying to the Air Force Academy, in addition to the University of Virginia and Duke University. It soon became evident that getting into a service academy takes hard work and patience.
In addition to having high SAT scores and an outstanding academic record, she needed to demonstrate leadership skills, and participation in some form of athletics. She had to be in top physical condition. And finally, she had to receive an appointment from either our congressional representative or one of Virginia’s U.S. senators.
In the beginning, the Air Force Academy was her first choice, but when we mentioned this to a family friend, he asked our daughter if she had considered the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. His sister worked there and was happy to arrange a visit. At first our daughter was reluctant to go, saying she preferred the Air Force, but we persuaded her to at least look at the Naval Academy.
So, in April of her junior year, we drove up to Annapolis to see what it had to offer. On a beautiful spring day, with flowers and forsythia in full bloom, the admissions office arranged a full tour of the grounds led by a sharp female midshipman.
Late that afternoon, we headed back to Richmond with our daughter now interested in the school. When she received her letter of admission from the Naval Academy later in the fall before hearing from any other school, she immediately accepted and began preparing to become a member of the brigade of midshipmen.
Fast forward to July 6, 1991, Induction or “I Day” at the Naval Academy. The four of us, including our son, drove to Annapolis the day before our daughter was to report. Having gone through the Rat Line at VMI, I had some sense of the difficulty she would be facing as a plebe, and it concerned me.
If she was like I was when I was 18 years old, at times, she would be tempted to drop out and transfer to a college less demanding. She was beginning perhaps the greatest challenge in her life. One has to experience it to fully comprehend its difficulty.
I had been trying to think of something she could carry with her to help give her strength in the coming months — a good luck talisman of some sort. Then it came to me: one of the brass buttons from my full-dress VMI uniform.
So, just as we got ready to leave for Annapolis, I quietly slipped up to our attic and snipped a button off of my full-dress uniform (“coatee”) and put it in my pocket.
That evening the four of us went to dinner in Annapolis, which took on the atmosphere of a prisoner’s last meal. As we waited for our dessert, I pulled the VMI button out and handed it to my daughter, saying, “This button went through four difficult years with me at VMI, and I’m giving it to you to help see you through your next four years.”
As she took it, tears welled up in my eyes, and before long all four of us had tears rolling down our cheeks.
After a fitful night’s sleep, we drove over to the academy, where our daughter spent most of the day getting registered, vaccinated, issued uniforms, a haircut and seemingly a million other things.
In the meantime, the three of us nervously waited until 5 o’clock that evening when the entire plebe class was marched into “T Court” in front of massive Bancroft Hall where they were sworn into the Navy.
After raising her right hand and saying, “I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the Unites States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ...,” our daughter now belonged to Uncle Sam and no longer to us.
She and her 1,100 classmates were ordered to fall out and were given 10 minutes to say goodbye to their families. Amid many tears and hugs, we parted ways as she walked through the giant doorway into Bancroft Hall, her life never to be the same.
Four years later, we watched with immense pride as she walked across the stage to receive her diploma, graduating with distinction and ranking in the top 10% of her class. Following the ceremony, we greeted each other warmly.
As I hugged my daughter, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her VMI button. She then told me that it not only brought her good luck, it helped several of her classmates. When word got around that she had a “magic button,” they would borrow it for good luck while taking a difficult exam.
The story does not end there. Two years later, when our son prepared to enter VMI, our daughter passed the button on to him, but this time with a brass button from one of her Naval Academy uniforms tied to it. He then carried those buttons with him for the next four years until he graduated with distinction in 2000.
Eight years later at a dinner in my honor when I retired early from the Virginia Historical Society because of Parkinson’s disease, my children were asked to make remarks about their dad.
They said some nice thing about me and their mom, and as they ended their remarks, my son reached into his pocket, saying he wanted to give me something that would help me in the battle I had ahead of me. He then handed me the buttons, including a third from his VMI uniform.
Since then, I have given buttons to certain young men and women as they prepared to enter VMI. So far it has brought good luck to each recipient.
Not long ago, I ran into a young man whom I had helped get into VMI. Without my asking, he pulled out his wallet and reached in to show me the button I gave him 12 years before. He said it continued to bring him good luck.
Magic? No, but I think it serves as a reminder to never quit and as a result, you will never regret the decision to stay the course.
Where are they now?
After graduating from the Naval Academy, Alethea Bryan spent seven years of active duty in the Navy, including two tours in the Persian Gulf on a guided missile cruiser and an aircraft carrier. She spent her last two years of service at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland, Md.
While stationed in Norfolk, she met her husband, Glenn Gerding, a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer, now a captain in the Navy Reserve, and an appellate defender for the state of North Carolina. Alethea is the managing editor of three scientific and medical journals. The couple has two boys and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Charles Bryan III graduated from VMI in 2000 with a degree in computer science. Unable to qualify for a commission in the armed services because of asthma, he, nevertheless, installed computer systems on Navy warships at Dahlgren.
While at VMI, he met Angela Roman, a student at neighboring Washington & Lee University, from where she graduated with high honors. She received a scholarship from the Army to earn her doctorate of medicine from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. She holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and is a pediatric rheumatologist at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Charles is a senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Washington–Tacoma. They have a daughter, Olivia.
Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at: email@example.com