Why a leadership center at Hampden-Sydney

By Gen. Samuel V. Wilson, president emeritus

What we are celebrating here today has the potential to become a profoundly important undertaking. I would like briefly to tell you why this is so.

Reputable historians tell us that the average age of great civilizations has been right at 200 years. That means if we start our birthday count at 1776, then we are already deep in the bonus period. We are also told that, by that second-century mark, erstwhile prosperous societies have tended to become slothful, soft, and hedonistic and to lose social and political cohesion as self-interest begins to predominate over the interests of a people as a whole. Sound familiar?

wilson squareIt is important for us to note in this connection that the world has become an exponentially more dangerous place with the revolutionary advances that have taken place in the technological arena, especially in the period of World War II and its aftermath. Now 21st-Century technology makes available incredibly destructive power to a single, determined terrorist—power possibly exceeding that which formerly might belong to an army. Think of Pan Am 103 exploding over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, killing all 259 people on board, not counting eleven people on the ground. Think of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

So the question for us now becomes: Will these United States of America go the way of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and others we might name—one more mighty skeleton buried in the sands of time—or can we, as I used to tell my Russian colleagues during the Cold War, can we remain forever young and vibrant by drinking from the fountain of youth, which for us in America is the polling place, and be rejuvenated, getting a fresh start every four years?

In this light, are we in America proving capable of meeting the threats, challenges and issues facing us—internal as well as external—or are we beginning to falter? Has Washington lost the bubble? If so, can we recover? Is the upcoming generation doomed to inherit the bitter wind that blows across our past mistakes? Is that shaking ground beneath our feet the silent sounds of rot and decay?

I submit to you that the most ominous danger of them all is our acute poverty in leadership today—in all fields—government, business, church, sports, education/academe. News headlines tell us daily of egregious violations of moral principles and of public trust that undermine our confidence in both governmental and private institutions. We have witnessed just this spring and summer a classic example in the political arena of narrow-minded, self-serving politicians on both sides of the aisle stubbornly seeking to serve their own partisan political aims and in the process bringing the entire country to the brink of economic disaster. Diogenes, with his lantern seeking to find an honest, morally courageous man who can see beyond his own selfish interests, would be a very lonely and frustrated figure in Washington today.

Yet there is reason for hope. I believe that little Hampden-Sydney College and others like us can make a difference in this situation even if our numbers are small, for, when you list them, our founding fathers were also few in number. Take away eight to ten of them, beginning with Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and Franklin, and we might never have become a sovereign nation. Rather we might be more like Canada or an assorted number of smaller nation-states resembling those of South America. Thus, we would observe that it was the dedication and the quality of leaders responding to desperate need at the time of our revolution, not their numbers, that made the difference. Armed with this knowledge, we are undeterred by considerations of size.

And why is Hampden-Sydney a good place to start? The history and rich traditions of this venerable college put wind in our sails. As many of you are aware, sons of Hampden-Sydney have played a stellar role over the years in keeping our ship of state on a steady course. We have made, and continue to make, a difference far out of proportion to the size of this small, all-male institution. We can take great pride in the varied and stellar achievements of the many governors, congressmen, ambassadors and judges as well as corporate and community leaders, and a U.S. President, who have passed through the college’s gates. In each instance, their careers were shaped by the rich liberal arts curriculum and the demanding honor code of this institution.

As many of you are aware, sons of Hampden-Sydney have played a stellar role over the years in keeping our ship of state on a steady course. We have made, and continue to make, a difference far out of proportion to the size of this small, all-male institution.

You should also know that today Hampden-Sydney men are deployed around the world in a wide variety of leadership roles and functions in the U.S. Foreign Service, Intelligence, the military, the Peace Corps, also serving in non-governmental charitable agencies, on overseas teaching fellowships, and in international business—to name a few. At home, we find them involved in useful public service, especially politics, at the local, state, and national levels as senior staff officers, as elected officials, as chiefs of staff to key political figures, as political campaign managers, and as advance men, as speech writers, as news correspondents, and as fundraisers. Illustrative examples are many; a graduate of the class of 1992, Rod O’Connor, was the Chief Operations Officer of the Democratic National Committee responsible for organizing and overseeing the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000. He must have done something right, for four years later he was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of the National Committee and charged with staging and supervising the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.

The record of Hampden-Sydney men, both in and out of uniform, protecting our foreign policy and national security interests overseas is equally impressive. For some reason—and I leave you to speculate on what it might be—we have had a marked increase in Hampden-Sydney men going into military service and Intelligence over the past two decades. Their unusual success, almost to a man, practically brings tears to this old soldier’s eyes. A number of them have served and are serving with distinction in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. We in the Center here somehow manage to keep in telephone and e-mail contact with them. For me, that meant three incoming e-mail reports and four long distance telephone calls this past weekend, and we are delighted that many of them (along with others serving in non-military roles) return to campus at the first opportunity. That provides an opportunity to celebrate them and for them to tell their stories to current students at informal, late afternoon gatherings here at the Center. To a man, they cite how their Hampden-Sydney liberal arts experience, with emphasis on learning how to reason logically, to think rationally and clearly, and to communicate effectively, gives them a marked advantage over their peers, who have not had a similar opportunity. Importantly, to this point we have not lost a man, but they are placing themselves in harm’s way, and I worry deeply, especially when I’m trying to go to sleep at night.

So, I ask you to recognize that there is such a thing as the Hampden-Sydney man and I would like to offer you yet another specific example of one of them.

The record of Hampden-Sydney men, both in and out of uniform, protecting our foreign policy and national security interests overseas is equally impressive. Their unusual success, almost to a man, practically brings tears to this old soldier’s eyes.

A number of us here at H-SC watched the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on Monday evening, 18 January 1999, with great interest. Discussion during part of that program centered on the 42nd President’s pending impeachment trial and involved five selected college newspaper editors from around the country. Represented were Princeton University, the University of Southern California, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin and little Hampden-Sydney College. The editors from the four large universities named tended to ramble somewhat about the subject, saying most students on their campuses are not really interested in the 42nd President’s alleged indiscretions and the resulting congressional—and public—reaction. According to the representative from Princeton: “Our students are primarily concerned with final exams, graduation, and the stock market.”

In sharp contrast to this remark, Greg Thomas ’99, editor of The Hampden-Sydney Tiger and a participant in David Marion’s public service program, observed that many Hampden-Sydney students were deeply interested in this matter, some of them feeling that if the President were a student at Hampden-Sydney, he would be expelled for lying. (Remember “I did not have sex with that woman”?) Thomas continued: “Yet, here he is, the leader of our country, and he gets to keep his job.” Later in the program, Thomas was mildly critical of the public media, saying, “People paid attention to the issue at first because it was about sex. The mass media pandered to the lowest common denominator, but at the heart of the issue was the Presidency of the United States.”

Why do I relate this story to you? The point is whether you agree or not with Greg Thomas’ point of view, our young H-SC representative stood tall, showed that he was knowledgeable about what was going on at the seat of government, took a responsible position, and stated it well and without equivocation, while his other editor colleagues from leading American universities waffled. And the complimentary telephone calls, letters, and e-mails poured in to my office in the aftermath, a number of them asking for college catalogs and other information about Hampden-Sydney.

I should quickly point out, however, that Greg Thomas was not and is not unique at Hampden-Sydney; indeed, for the most part, he is representative of the student body. He is simply the kind of young man we continue trying to raise here on this hill—“Good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning”—the kind of young leader we endeavor to prepare for the dangerous and challenging world of the 21st Century, the kind of young man who will steadfastly endeavor “to stand on principle and do the right thing,” regardless of its cost to him.

So, let me repeat what I said in the beginning of these remarks that what we are celebrating here today has the potential to become a profoundly important undertaking. I hope I have made the case why this is so.

In closing, let me add that many, if not most of us seek a cause, a noble undertaking, larger and more important than our own selfish interests, in which we can immerse ourselves, where we can find true meaning and a sense of fulfillment in our lives. So, let an old man, who will be well into his middle 90s when the currently matriculating H-SC class graduates, let this old, old man tell you who seek a cause worthy of serious effort and sacrifice, that the cause is here on this hill.

As my old first sergeant many years ago used to say to me when he had just laid a weighty observation on me: “Think about it, Sir. Think about it.”

And so I say to you this afternoon, “Think about it.”

Thank you for your interest and loyal support as evidenced by the simple fact that you are here this afternoon. May God bless us all.