The Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) 1914 class ring, above center, features the scimitar, crescent and star of the Shriner symbol. Why the Shriners? Only Dan Brown knows. The receptionist at the VMI Museum, where we saw it, didn’t. The museum features a display of each year’s class ring – at least the ones that they could find — and 1914 was the only one with a design that’s not the VMI logo. My husband, a Mason (the Shriners are a subset of the Masons), noticed and asked about it. The receptionist said that he’d look into it while we looked around.
VMI, in Lexington, Virginia, was founded in 1839 and is the oldest military state college in the U.S. Students are prepared to be military officers and must take ROTC but aren’t required to join the armed forces after graduation. Lately, about 50% do.
We hadn’t planned to see VMI but had some extra time late on a Sunday afternoon, so decided to take a quick look around the VMI Museum. The only people in sight, as we parked our car directly in front of a large building that said, “Museum,” were a group of cadets doing a punishment tour, marching up and down the road between the parade grounds and barracks.
We should have paid better attention to the museum sign because, once inside the building, the volunteer at the front desk met us with, “Welcome to the George C. Marshall Museum.” General Marshall graduated from VMI in 1901. The volunteer said that we were the only visitors they’d had that day, and apologized for having to charge us a $5 entry fee. They aren’t supported by the school – the museum is run by the Marshall Foundation — and funding is low. It seemed a bad moment to tell her that we’d made a mistake and were really looking for the VMI Museum, so we paid our $10.
What I knew about George Marshall was mumble… mumble… mumble… Marshall Plan. What I didn’t know (besides pretty much everything else) was that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize for the plan. Being face-to-face with Alfred Nobel on the Nobel Prize medal was, for me, the coolest thing about the museum. Marshall also claimed the title “Father of the Jeep”: he approved the funds for the army to test the jeep, a new product that had been rejected by the rest of the military establishment. They bought 70 for testing, it went well, and the rest is history. Oh yes, and he lead the Allies to victory in Europe.
The VMI Museum was on the other side of the parade grounds, in Jackson Memorial Hall. Like the Lee Chapel and Museum at Washington-Lee, the first floor of the Hall is used for school assemblies. The museum is on two lower floors and has permanent exhibits on VMI during the Civil War, notable alumni of VMI, and of course, the life and times of Stonewall Jackson. It also has the most extensive and dazzling collection of firearms I’ve ever seen. Photography is allowed of the collections on the museum’s main level, but not of the personal memorabilia and firearms on the lowest floor. Entry is free.
The school has daily cadet-led tours, which start at noon and last about an hour. We went at the wrong time for that, but walked around on our own. The Jackson Memorial is at the top of the parade grounds, in front of the Jackson Arch leading into the cadet barracks. It features the cannons Jackson used at VMI to teach artillery, and a bronze statue of Jackson at Chancellorsville by Moses Ezekiel, a sculptor who was VMI’s first Jewish graduate and a Confederate war hero. The innards of Stonewall’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried in front of the monument. His hide is mounted over a plaster cast and displayed in the VMI Museum. I didn’t make that up. Really.