By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsMay 19, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 19, 2011) -- (Editor's note: With the rainfall dampening Graduation Week festivities early on, the Alumni Wreath Ceremony and Alumni Review were cancelled Tuesday morning. The Pointer View used this opportunity to sit down with this year's distinguished graduates before the Alumni Luncheon as well as the oldest living West Point graduate in attendance.)
Anticipating the grandeur of the entire Corps of Cadets taking formation on the Plain, West Point alumni were a little disappointed Tuesday to learn of the Wreath Laying Ceremony and Alumni Review cancellations due to weather.
"The review is such a great spectacle with all the cadets participating out there in front of the great American public, and especially with all the alumni groups here," Gen. William Richardson, Class of 1951, said. "When we were here for our 55th reunion some years ago, it also rained and that was disappointing for all of us."
Despite the weather, Richardson was proud to attend this year's Distinguished Graduate luncheon as a recipient.
The former commander of the Combined Arms Center and the Training and Doctrine Command said the award honors graduates for their contributions to the Army and West Point.
"West Point is a place I cherish very much," Richardson said. "I have three areas in my background that best signify my love; the first is West Point, the second is the Infantry School-I spent a lot of time down there, and third, the Command and General Staff College, where I was commandant. I've maintained connections with all three since I've retired."
Being back at West Point naturally brings back memories of tough times as a plebe, Richardson said, but also of the many mentors he learned from.
"In my estimation, they were the heroes of World War II. They were field grade officers, mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels who were my heroes," Richardson said. "I wanted to be associated with these people, and there was no question their stature was enormous. That caused me to want a lifetime of service in the Army."
Maj. Gen Carl McNair Jr., Class of 1955, felt overwhelmed just from being nominated as a Distinguished Graduate by his peers. Receiving the call that he was a 2011 recipient rendered him speechless.
"I feel humbled just to be placed in the same group of distinguished alumni that have been selected in the past," McNair said.
Likewise, Col. Bill McArthur Jr., Class of 1973, said just being considered from a nominating pool of graduates is an honor.
"I think that was one of the most singular honors that has ever come my way," McArthur said. "Because it gives you a sort of view of what has been a very large part of your life, as seen through someone else who probably has very high standards. That in itself probably means the most to me."
McArthur had a different reflection on the weather call that day.
"For me personally, I think we all can reminisce to our days as cadets and know the Corps is thrilled right now to not have to stand out in the rain today," McArthur said. "I do have my entire family here today and my young grandchildren; probably my three-year-old grandson in particular will be disappointed about not seeing the Alumni Review. But that just means I need to bring him back again to see a parade."
Dr. Lewis Sorley, Class of 1956 graduate, is the only Distinguished Grad this year who can claim having been born and raised at West Point.
"I was born in the Admissions Office, which was a hospital in those days," Sorley said. "Obviously I came back as a cadet, but also spent another three years as an English instructor and then later spent most of a year in the archives doing research when I was asked to write a book about the history of the honor code and honor system."
Receiving the Distinguished Graduate Award is especially meaningful because of his family history at West Point.
"My father was a graduate in the Class of 1924 and my grandfather is a Class of 1891 graduate," he said. "I'd like to think they're looking down somewhere and seeing this because they'd really be happy about it."
Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer, from the Class of 1962, commanded the 4th Infantry Division in 1988, served as deputy chief of staff for operations on the Army Staff in 1990 and led the planning for the Army's support of Operation Desert Shield. Prior to his retirement, he served as the Chief of Staff of the Army.
"First of all, receiving the Distinguished Graduate Award is a great honor, but it's also an unexpected one," Reimer said. "I know so many people deserving of this honor, and to be selected for it is a humbling experience. It is also very meaningful to me because West Point has been very meaningful in my life."
An Oklahoma native, Reimer remembers entering the academy in 1958 and being overwhelmed by the experience.
"Looking at the scenery today even as it's raining, I consider this the most beautiful place I've ever seen in my life," Reimer said. "But more importantly, I come from a family with no military experience. So West Point had to educate me and train me, and they had to do a lot of both because I didn't know what I was getting into. I will always be thankful for what they did for me both in an academic environment and in a professional military environment."
More importantly, he said, West Point connected him with people who had the same values and accepted "Duty, Honor, Country" as more than a motto but as an irreplaceable bond.
"It brought us together in a way that nothing else could," Reimer said. "Throughout my time in the military, those classmates and those experiences have been very valuable to me and in everything I've done."
In May of 1962, Reimer was at the Thayer Award presentation when Gen. Douglas MacArthur addressed the Corps of Cadets. If Reimer were to offer advice to the graduating Class of 2011, it would be to read that speech-which is known as the "Duty, Honor, Country" speech-in its entirety.
"It's tremendously important, and I'd pay particular attention to the part that talks about 'Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the nation will be destroyed.'" Reimer said. "That is the profession they will enter. And when you stop and think about those words from MacArthur, you realize how important it is to what they will be doing."
Retired Col. Paul Skowronek has the distinction of being the oldest grad present this week for alumni activities. But the Class of 1941 graduate said he doesn't feel that old.
"I haven't noticed much of a change these last few years," Skowronek said. "I feel very good, and really, I feel optimistic about coming back to the next reunion."
He particularly enjoys congregating with his fellow classmates.
"Though there aren't very many of us left ... but the 10 who were able to make it this year, there's a joy in seeing them again," Skowronek said. "I'm sorry that the parade was rained out. That's always a special event. But this is something I'll remember, and God willing, I'll be back for the next one."
His memories of being a West Point cadet reflect on the rigorous schedule of activities-both academic and extracurricular.
"I enjoyed skiing with the Ski Club, and I was president of the club," he said. "We even started to build the ski tow and the ski hill during my time here as a cadet. But as a cadet you stay so busy there's not much time to register anything else. But I enjoyed it."
Skowronek said West Point helped prepare him as a Cavalry officer, particularly during his training in languages.
He was a graduate of the U.S. Army Language School and the U.S. Army Russian Institute, and served as an intelligence officer in the Pentagon and later as deputy director of the British-U.S. Arms Control Project in the U.K.
"I went on to specialize in the Russian language program, and I think my proficiency was based a lot on study habits I developed at West Point," Skowronek said. "After I retired I went on to Oxford and took their Slavonic studies, and received my doctorate at the University of Colorado. I don't think I would have been as interested in continuing my studies had it not been for the terrific foundation I got as a cadet."
And his advice to the next class of graduating cadets'
"Volunteer for everything, and be enthusiastic and excited about collecting experiences," Skowronek said.
He remembers visiting classmates in Italy and climbing aboard a B-47 aircraft to Sicily where he made his first parachute jump.
"That inspired me to become a skydiver later on," Skowronek said. "For our 50th, 55th and 60th reunions, I skydived onto the Plain. There's always something exciting to do in the military, and I never missed a thing. I think it prepared me for a very interesting retirement."