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HONOR - THE CORNERSTONE OF CHARACTER

6/2/2009 - "Of men who have a sense of honor, more come through alive than are slain, but from those who flee comes neither glory nor any help” Iliad, Book 15.

I have the honor and privilege of sitting on the Board of Directors for an established wholesale supply distribution company here in Orlando. The Chairman of the Board, Owen, like me, is a graduate of Virginia Tech and, like me, was a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC) in the 1960’s. Virginia Tech was founded as a military school in 1872 as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College with 132 students and school colors of black and gray. In 1896, the name was changed to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the school colors were changed to burnt orange and Chicago maroon. The official name today is Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University but that’s a mouthful, so most people know it as Virginia Tech. With the exception of a few transfer students and veterans, who were allowed to be civilians, Virginia Tech remained a predominantly military school until 1964, when the Corps was made optional. Today, Virginia Tech has just under 30,000 students and an active Corps of about 800 cadets. Virginia Tech and Texas A&M are the only two schools in America with a civilian student body and a Corps of Cadets. Clemson used to be all military until 1955 but now is all civilian. So, while the Corps is smaller in number than it was in the 1960’s, it remains a vibrant part of the Virginia Tech culture and the students who elect to become members of the Corps, all extraordinary young men and women, graduate with a minor in Leadership.

As Owen and I were talking the other day, he reminded me of the Corps Honor Code – “A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” All cadets were required to abide by the Honor Code and a cadet who violated it would be subject to a variety of serious consequences, including being tried by the Honor Court and being kicked out of school. Indeed, a cadet who engaged in extremely egregious behavior in violation of the honor code could be “drummed out” of the Corps. This happened only twice that I remember and it was bone chilling. I was a “rat” the first time it happened, H Company, VTCC. A rat is a freshman cadet and we walked the “rat line” at a stiff brace ever day with our “rat buddies.” Taps and “Lights Out” was at 11 and we had retired for the night, when about midnight, an upperclassman opened our door and told us very quietly to get up and get in uniform immediately. This was unusual because upperclassmen usually burst into your room unexpectedly and with a high degree of stress, volume and disregard for the well-being of the rat. We quickly put on our uniforms, formed up outside the barracks and marched to the center of the upper quadrangle, in front of Lane Hall, the oldest and most historic building on campus. All the commands were given to us in very quiet voices. When we reached Lane Hall, Band Company was already in formation and the drummers were softly beating march time. All of the drums were covered with a cloth of some kind that muffled the sound even more. There were street lights surrounding the formation area, but they were all covered with a blanket so that they gave out an eerie, soft glow that was ghostlike in its effect. When the entire Corps was assembled, the drums stopped beating and the Corps Commander or one of his staff called “Attention to Orders.” I don’t know if the Honor Court Judge read the orders or if it was someone else, but he said something like, “Mr. So and So has been found guilty of violating the Honor Code of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. His name will never again be spoken on this campus. You will consider him to be dead.” Then we were all given the command to “About Face.” The drums began to beat again very quietly and we had the sensation that the former cadet was being marched away. He was not required to be present but we felt the sensation anyway. After a few minutes, we were given the command to “About Face” again, and then we marched back to our barracks, and it was over. Sleep, if there was sleep, came late that night, and hovered dreamless, just out of reach, at the edges of consciousness. A second drumming out ceremony occurred later, during my sophomore year, but I don’t remember it happening again. We were older and more experienced cadets by then . . . age 19 at least . . . but it was no less chilling.

The Corps Honor Code was not complicated, but it was good and noble. We did not think about whether we would abide by the Honor Code, we just did it as a matter of course. It was a part of cadet life and I am prone to think that, for those who made it through, it was somehow a part of their genetic predisposition. Even after graduating from Virginia Tech, former cadets still abide by the Honor Code, even though our journeys may have taken us down different pathways. It is not something we think about. It is a part of who we are. It is deeply ingrained by the Corps experience.

Today, it occurs to me that the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Honor Code offers good leadership advice for us today. A good leader does not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do. If we were to survey the business and social landscape today, we might be tempted to conclude that leaders who abide by this kind of Code are not as plentiful as they used to be, or at least, not as we remember them in our mind’s eye. There are enough crooked people in every line of work to disillusion even the most stout hearted of men and women. It has been my experience that most people who get in trouble on this score do so, not because they don’t know right from wrong, but on account of their own will. But then, like that old mountain trout stream, bubbling up in the background of the mind, it occurs to me that thus it has always been, and that the folks you can really count on, through the dark night of the soul, and through the inexorable vicissitudes of life, can be counted on very few hands.

Therefore, if I’m in a business deal, if I’m hiring a new employee, if I’m going to church for spiritual nourishment, if I’m meeting with my buddies -- give me a man or woman who’ll look you straight in the eye and, with no conversation necessary, I will know, this is a person who does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. This is a person I can count on. This person is my friend.



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