Often I reflect on the powerful ability of the Long Gray Line to come together in support of one another and to serve our nation. I also watch with admiration and pride as a new class of cadets graduates and I find these new graduates to be nothing short of extraordinary.
I am writing to you today with a request. It’s a request for your support—support that is genuinely deserving—and will help cadets while they are at the Academy get even more out of the experience.
By way of background, let me share with you several personal experiences that underscore why I continue to support, so enthusiastically, the “Margin of Excellence”: a program that plays such an important part in developing these young future leaders of character.
It is ironic that I would never have learned about West Point if it hadn’t been for the support and encouragement of my high school football coach, Fred Campbell, a World War II Marine who fought on Iwo Jima. The summer before my senior year, Coach Campbell surprised my family with a request to drive me from Michigan to meet Earl “Red” Blaik, West Point’s legendary football coach. I wasn’t aware that we would be arriving without an appointment, and it turned out that, as a result, we had to sit for almost three hours before finally having a brief five-minute talk with Coach Blaik.
What might well have soured me on West Point, actually had the exact opposite effect. Coach Campbell and I strolled around the Academy grounds, over to Trophy Point, past the Barracks and Dining Hall, and paused to marvel at the landmark statue of General George Washington. From that day forward, I was hooked! And I was determined to go to West Point!
For me, sports were an integral part of the education and training experience at the Academy, and much of what I learned there came from my time on the football field. I was small for my age and I realized early on that, to be successful, I needed to add pounds and strength. Even though it wasn’t authorized, I snuck a set of barbells into the Barracks, hiding the plates beneath my mattress and strapping the bar to the back of the bedframe.
For four years, each night after taps, I would assemble my weights and lift in the darkness. As a result, I was able to add 50 pounds to a frame that proved able to handle the rigors of being a Division 1 running back. Beyond that, it taught me that discipline, tenacity, and determination are what it takes to be an effective leader. Throughout my years at the Academy, these skills helped me become First Captain of Cadets, President of my Class, and Captain of the football team. The sound academic foundation I gained at West Point gave me the opportunity, later on, to attend Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
Looking back on my experiences, both at West Point and Oxford, I realize what a remarkable combination they were. The practical engineering focus of the Military Academy paired with the deep intellectual fabric of Oxford:
- One taught me how to find answers to tough, complex questions.
- The other taught me the right questions to ask!
After graduation, throughout my life in the military and even more so today, it has become clear that West Point needs private funding to excel as an outstanding university. If we want our future leaders to experience academic, military, physical, and character programs that will make them the best, we need to step forward to support the “Margin of Excellence.”
One of my favorite memories from my time as a cadet involved General Douglas MacArthur. He was living at the Waldorf Towers in New York City and, from time to time, he would show up, unannounced, at West Point. On one occasion, he asked to speak to the football team. We all crowded into the taping room and the General began to talk. And talk he did! It turned into an incredibly powerful speech, and I remember the conclusion of it clearly to this day:
“When you go out on that field, you play not for yourself… Not for your teammates…Not for the Military Academy… When you go out on that field, you play for the ghosts of a million American fighting men who gave their lives for their country… Now go out, and win!”
I think about this often. I believe we must all do our part to enhance a winning culture for current and future cadets.
For those who are graduates, reflect on your own West Point experience. Think about the “Margin of Excellence” opportunities that were available to you, and I then ask all of you who have been impacted by West Point to consider giving a gift. Your support ensures that West Point will have the resources necessary to continue to attract, retain, and graduate the very best leaders in this remarkable country of ours!