Spartan Donors

What s to be gained from private giving to Uncle Sam s military academies?

It was a philanthropist who armed John Abizaid.

When Abizaid graduated from West Point in 1973, there was little or no opportunity for cadets to go abroad and study foreign societies or languages. As he entered the Army, Abizaid spoke no Arabic and knew very little about the Muslim world, but his great grandfather was Lebanese, and he had a feeling the Middle East was going to be a region of consequence during his lifetime. In 1978, the promising young officer got a chance to act on his hunch. Abizaid was offered an Olmsted Scholarship.

The Trailblazer

George Olmsted had a storybook American life. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy in 1918. Four years later he was First Captain of the Corps of Cadets, second in his class academically, featherweight boxing champion, and chairman of the Honor Committee. After a brief Army career he returned to Iowa to help his father run a small insurance agency. He started buying other insurers and consolidating their operations in Des Moines.

When World War II broke out, reservist Olmsted was recalled to active service. He was soon handling all of the Army’s Lend-Lease requests from foreign countries. Excelling under frantic war-materiel and diplomatic pressure, he was next sent to China and promoted to brigadier general. In the China-Burma-India theater, he took responsibility for handling economic and political interactions with allies, equipping and training military partners, and running clandestine operations.

At the end of the war he was entrusted with a delicate responsibility. Given the icy intricacies of Japan’s bushido code, there was deep concern that the American prisoners of war held in 11 Japanese camps might be slaughtered as a face-saver at the time of Japan’s surrender. Olmsted’s elaborate culture-based solution included parachuting teams of seven unarmed men into each camp, who informed the Japanese commanders by name that they would be held personally responsible for the safety of all prisoners.

After the war, Olmsted returned to building his business, adding banks to his string of insurance companies. By 1959 his financial empire had operations in most states and several foreign lands. That same year, Olmsted and his wife established the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation, with the tightly focused charge of providing funds so that active-duty military officers (several dozen annually) could enroll in two years of full-time study in a non–English speaking country.

In 2000, the program was expanded to allow cadets and midshipmen at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs to take part in cultural immersions of shorter duration. In 2003 the circle was widened yet again, with extra funding to cover students in each of the three services’ ROTC programs. And as of 2007, six other colleges offering military education—ranging from the Citadel to Norwich University—were offered grants for the same purpose.


To date, 545 active-duty Olmsted Scholars have done two-year deep dives in 59 different countries. These have included 40 individuals who subsequently rose to the rank of general or admiral. Several thousand cadets and midshipmen have undertaken shorter periods of cultural immersion, in around 90 countries, with Olmsted funding.

“The greatest leaders must be educated broadly,” insisted George Olmsted. The donor statement he wrote is quite explicit:

The interest of the Foundation extends beyond academic study. The Scholar is expected to become familiar with the institutions, characteristics, customs, and mores of the people of the country. . . . It is anticipated that warm and enduring friendships will be formed with individuals in the country in which he or she studies. To the extent that studies permit, a Scholar is expected to travel extensively and acquire a familiarity with the region of which the country of study is a part.

“The benefits to the individuals undergoing the educational experience are self-evident. The benefits to the United States,” Olmsted concluded, “are equally great in my judgment.”

Full Immersion

John Abizaid was the very first member of the U.S. military to use his Olmsted Scholarship to live and study in an Arab country. He rented a small basement apartment in Amman, a stone’s throw from the University of Jordan. The Abizaids had a toddling daughter, and Kathy was pregnant as the two-year fellowship began. She cried when she saw their apartment.

Living in a normal Arab neighborhood outside the expatriate enclaves had its advantages, though. A rippling flow of neighbors made daily visits—offering advice, asking about America, talking politics, exchanging language and cultural tips, sharing food. “We are now members of the neighborhood,” Abizaid wrote in a report back to the Olmsted Foundation. Once, a Bedouin sheikh who had befriended the Abizaids and lived in an encampment outside the city arrived with a dozen family members. “We’ve come to bathe,” he explained, which they did, rotating through the apartment’s bathroom over several hours.

John ground his way through college classes conducted solely in Arabic. He absorbed Islamic history, and memorized verses from the Quran. “I now understand that Islam is much more than a religion. It is a way of life that guides Muslims in every aspect of their lives,” he wrote to his Olmsted sponsors in 1979.

During his second semester, the Shah of Iran was toppled, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the first Islamist takeover of a major country. A wave of radicalism swept the Middle East. At one point, Abizaid was caught in gunfire when Islamists clashed with Jordanian security forces outside the history building where he was studying. “Experiences such as this are worth as much as classroom study,” he summarized in his next report back to the Olmsted administrator.

Not long after, 66 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran. There were student celebrations on Abizaid’s campus. Looking back later, he said, “It was inevitable that something big was coming our way in the Middle East. You could just sense it.”

When school was out of session, Abizaid traveled: driving out into the Yemeni desert to watch skirmishes in that country’s civil war, meeting soldiers in Oman who were fighting for the sultan against insurgents. He translated for a group of American officers scouting Arabian airfields for possible use in the secret mission to rescue the Iranian hostages.

At the end of his sojourn in Jordan, Abizaid decided to run the length of the country—270 miles from the border with Iraq to the port city of Aqaba. Along the way, he slept in desert encampments with locals. John Abizaid had slipped fully inside the Arab tent.

Eventually, he drew on every grain of understanding developed during his Olmsted studies. For 23 years later, with four stars on his shoulders, U.S. soldiers garrisoning Baghdad and Kabul, and smoke still drifting from the ruins in lower Manhattan, he became the American responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the seething trouble spots of central Asia.

Private Lessons in Culture

By the time John Abizaid had returned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1997 for a two-year stint as commandant, cultural immersions of the sort he pioneered in Jordan two decades earlier were beginning to be offered to cadets. And today, overseas study has become a major part of the education of young officers. West Point alone sends several hundred cadets abroad every year, in episodes ranging from a single conference to a year of work and study, in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.

And most of this is done with the money of private philanthropists. Indeed, by 2015 West Point intends that 100 percent of overseas cultural immersion programs will be funded by individual donors, alumni gifts, or foundations. Many donors have taken an interest in this work, at all three academies.

Private donations from graduates recently helped produce a new cultural immersion program at West Point that dispatches cadets to developing nations during the summer, where they work on aid projects. Cadets have, for instance, assisted the group Engineers Without Borders in developing countries, and will do so again in the summer of 2012. Funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Compton Foundation helped set up these collaborations with international nonprofits.

Such experiences “ensure that our graduates will not simultaneously experience culture shock and combat shock upon their first deployment,” explains Col. Mike Meese, head of the academy’s department of social sciences. Academy research indicates that West Point’s cultural immersion programs “significantly increase overall cadet cross-cultural competence, and are more effective than any other summer activity, including military schools and domestic academic trips.”

Thanks to these supplemental programs, about one-third of the cadets Meese teaches now spend time abroad. And in an era where the success or failure of military operations can hinge on cultural understanding, religious sensitivity, and diplomacy, this international exposure “definitely makes them better second lieutenants” after they graduate. “While you can’t claim this sort of thing is an essential part of military education—which is why it doesn’t get publicly funded—extra intellectual development like this, paid for by generous donors, provides future military leaders with a ‘margin of excellence’ that will help them succeed,” says Meese (who, as the son of former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, understands the subtleties of leadership).

Margins of Excellence

“My father was an eminent engineer, and eventually a vice president at U.S. Steel,” states James Kinnear. “I grew up in comfortable circumstances, and having been born in 1928 had a front-row seat on the Second World War. Among other things, I became just fascinated with the field of naval aviation.”

“My knowledge of the war,” he explains from behind kind eyes and a courtly smile, “made me want to go the U.S. Naval Academy. It represented things I admired. I also was accepted at Yale, but it was my decision to go to Annapolis.”

“I’d had a very good prep-school education at St. Paul’s School, so I did well academically,” he adds. “I enjoyed the athletics at the academy. I loved the camaraderie. I liked being a ‘mid,’ and I liked the other mids. Most formatively, the technological understanding I got at the Naval Academy was tremendous. Not just training, but real understanding. And this was extremely important to my success later on.”

Kinnear’s military career started with a bang. He was accepted for flight training, but just weeks after his graduation the Korean War broke out. Suddenly young officers were needed badly, and he was placed on an aircraft carrier involved in the very first combat actions in Korea.


James Kinnear

During his third Korean tour, this time on a ship that launched landing craft for amphibious assaults, Kinnear was just offshore, near an airfield where troops from the 82nd Airborne were parachuting in. The wind shifted and soldiers started landing in a lagoon where, unable to escape their parachute harnesses and heavy packs, they were drowning. Kinnear leapt into a small landing craft, along with a signalman, and raced out to try to rescue them.

Kinnear jumped into the water. He saved two men. Two others died in his arms.

After four years on active duty, Kinnear landed a job at Texaco. He never left the company. In 1987 he became CEO—at a terrible time. It was the peak of jury abuse in Texas’ pre–tort reform days, and Texaco had just been socked with a $13 billion judgment it was unable to appeal. If that stood it would sink the entire corporation. Kinnear engineered a bankruptcy filing and a massive restructuring, then fought off a takeover battle launched by Carl Icahn, followed by a proxy fight. Very few firms ever win. Texaco did.

“I was running a war more than running an oil company,” Kinnear summarizes. “Finally, we got it all behind us and went back to the business of producing energy.” During his executive tenure Texaco added nearly $2 to the value of its proven reserves for every dollar spent on exploration and development, the best record among major oil companies during that period. The company recovered.

Kinnear focused hard on technology and innovation, both in the oilfields and in laboratories. “I put a lot of weight on scientific progress. When I retired we had the deepest off-shore producing well in the world. We had developed deep-water drilling, and hydraulic fracturing, and steam injection. We were technologically a very advanced firm.”

Kinnear personally holds two important patents. These actually grow out of his work not at Texaco but as a member of the board of another extraordinary technology company—Corning, based in upstate New York. His idea eliminated a problem in catalytic converters (whose key element was made by Corning), with the effect of cutting in half the amount of pollution emitted during a typical car trip.

Not surprisingly, Kinnear’s generous giving to the Naval Academy has focused on the sciences, on high-level training for faculty, and on deepening the intellectual infrastructure of the institution. “I’m a great believer in the hard subjects—chemistry, physics, computer science. If you look at our ability to solve important problems, those kinds of fields will often produce the answers.”


Writing personal checks, the retired executive first gave several million dollars to endow the Kinnear Science Chair to attract particularly gifted professors. Then he came up with a summer study program—the Kinnear Summer Fellowship—that allows Naval Academy faculty to pursue esoteric research that “expands knowledge.” One recent grant was used to recalculate space asteroid positions. Another studied the impact of laser beams on the cockpit glass that protects pilots. “Visualizing Conformational Change in Signaling Aptamers” was one of the latest awards. And you thought visualizing world peace was hard.

“I want to encourage mind-expanding things that a professor at the academy could not otherwise do. This will lead in the long run to better, more able, professors. And that’s the basis for deeper learning. Men and women coming out of the Naval Academy will be right in the middle of many of the hardest, stickiest dilemmas in our nation’s future. So training them should be a priority,” explains Kinnear. “I rate academy graduates quite high as solvers of crucial problems. And I want to help them become even better.”

Private Money for Public Purposes

One might ask: Why do these institutions, which enjoy access to the appropriations process and Uncle Sam’s purse, need private contributions, anyway?

Of course a similar question could be posed about state colleges, which enjoy public funding, yet also rely on lots of private donations. The University of Virginia, for instance, now receives more revenue from private gift income than from Virginia appropriations. Donors give to the academies for the same reasons they give to state universities: sometimes out of personal loyalty, sometimes to support training they consider valuable to the nation.

It was only in the late 1990s that academy superintendents started raising money methodically from pioneer givers like James Kinnear. Over at West Point, the guy who broke the path was James Kimsey. Very appropriate for someone who is a member of the Army Ranger Hall of Fame, someone who managed, paradoxically, to be a solo trailblazer through much of his military career. “I’ve always wanted to work for myself. I never liked to follow others. Oddly, I rarely did in the Army.”

In his career after the Army as well, Kimsey has pretty much called his own shots. It was he who came up with the idea for America Online. He originally conceived AOL as a niche service for owners of Commodore Computers. In 1985, he hired Steve Case to do marketing for the struggling startup, and the path was paved to software CDs in seemingly every magazine and direct-mail envelope in America.

“I was the kind of kid who disrupted class and had discipline problems,” explains Kimsey. “I was thrown out of Gonzaga High School in my senior year. I spent some time in jail. My poor little Irish Catholic mother was beside herself.”

Eventually he won a scholarship to Georgetown University, but he was still running wild. “If I’d stayed at Georgetown I would have died of cirrhosis of the liver. I didn’t have self-discipline, or respect, or good intentions.” He and the Jesuit college parted company after one year.

Eventually Kimsey ended up at the U.S. Military Academy. “West Point taught me a lot. I was still resistant, but I had to behave. For four years I had to show discipline, and that stays with you. It became an integral part of my life. It didn’t happen right away, but I underwent a dramatic transformation.”

The Leadership Cauldron

After graduation, Kimsey attended Ranger School. That’s an experience most mortals merely aim to survive. He loved it.

Before long he was commanding a company of the 82nd Airborne—the first one on the ground during 1965 combat operations in the Dominican Republic. Under heavy fire, he led his unit out of an ambush. He also put in three combat tours in Vietnam during his eight-year Army career.


Kimsey worked with Catholic nuns in Vietnam to build an orphanage.

In the second tour, Kimsey helped CIA officer William Colby (who later became the Director of Central Intelligence) implement the Phoenix Program. Criticized by war opponents, the project is now characterized by former North Vietnamese military and military historians as the most effective counterinsurgency program of the war. It identified Viet Cong supporters and organized South Vietnamese security forces to capture or kill them. Phoenix operatives neutralized 81,740 agents, of whom 26,369 were killed, generally with silenced weapons at night. This dealt a hard blow to the cause of the invaders from the north, and it foreshadowed today’s targeted drone and Special Forces strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

Kimsey is the brusque tough guy who is sweeter in his heart than he lets on. Along with lots of rough-and-ready Merle Haggardish stuff, there are tender ballads on the country CD he recently banged out as lead singer, and his Vietnam history shows a similar mix of approaches. Kimsey’s predecessor as American commander in Duc Pho had been killed in action, and a story in Time produced a gush of funds for a memorial. Kimsey insisted that it be used to construct an orphanage right there in the poor, rural, very unsafe district he and his predecessor oversaw, rather than in a secure city. And for the next 38 years Kimsey supported the orphanage out of his own pocket.

“There’re only four things you can do with your money,” notes Kimsey. “You can give it to the government. You can spend it. You can give it to your ungrateful kids to their detriment. And my sons—I have three—all understand this. I never want to deprive them of the wonderful feeling of making it on their own. I don’t think you do your kids a favor by leaving them a lot of money, or letting them think they’re working with a net. And, so, the fourth and final thing you can do with your money is create something good with it. I think it’s incumbent on everybody with any amount of funds at all to start thinking like that.”

“I’m not a billionaire anymore,” he states in his soft voice. “But I was once. And at the time when I was stupid rich thanks to AOL, Dan Christman asked if I would consider a substantial gift to the U.S. Military Academy.”

Christman, who was the academy’s superintendent at that time, is yin to Kimsey’s yang. Three years apart in age, the two men overlapped as cadets for one season, but they didn’t then have much in common. Kimsey was the bad boy who bent every rule. Christman was a good scout who graduated first in his class. Yet they later bonded on the importance of establishing a regular flow of significant private aid to the academy, for projects that could lend special excellence to the place.

Kimsey’s goal for his West Point giving? To build leaders. “The most important ingredient in the national defense formula is leadership. You can spend billions on weapons systems, but if you have dumb battalion commanders you’re screwed. Good military leadership is crucial to our nation.”

“It’s also very helpful to the country at large,” he adds. “I consider the academies and military experience as some of the best preparation a person can be given for high performance in all kinds of careers. Leadership is a hugely important ingredient to national success, and the academies are cauldrons where good leaders are created.”

On the Playing Fields

Being a distinctly kinetic rather than cerebral type, Kimsey put his millions into something straightforward: sports. The Kimsey Athletics Center is home to the Army football program and other facilities. Sports are a big part of the military academy formula. Enrollees at the U.S. Military Academy have SAT scores approaching Ivy League levels, and one out of every five was president of his class or student body, but perhaps the most astonishing attribute of the corps is that 61 percent of cadets were varsity team captains in high school. And the most comprehensive physical education programs in the land are used at all of the academies to deepen self-mastery, discipline, courage, and leadership among cadets and midshipmen.


James Kimsey was inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame in 2005.

A lot of private money goes into academy athletics. Mega-philanthropist Ron Terwilliger (who made the largest-ever individual donation to Habitat for Humanity at $100 million) has donated millions for Naval Academy sports. Dan Akerson, the current CEO of General Motors, has renovated the football stadium, the baseball stadium, and the sailing center at Annapolis. Lee Anderson, owner of one of the nation’s large private companies, gave West Point $6 million for a rugby center. Roger Staubach, who made millions from his own commercial real estate firm following his NFL days, is a generous funder of sports at Annapolis. Bill Foley, chairman of two separate Fortune 500 financial companies and director of the Foley Family Foundation, has been a “transformative” athletics booster, according to the West Point development office.

The father of the Malek Tennis Center at the U.S. Military Academy, and one of a trio behind the Point’s Strength and Development Center, is Fred Malek. “Jim Kimsey’s original gift grabbed my attention,” he told me. That’s a good illustration of the way mutual inspiration and healthy competition sometimes motivate donors to take action, in lots of different fields of giving.

“I grew up in a blue-collar town, and was attracted by the physical challenges of West Point,” relates Malek, class of 1959. “The place had a profound impact on me. It exposed me to the best and the brightest, to a demanding academic environment, and to the most vigorous training I could endure.”

After graduating, Malek volunteered to go to Vietnam, where he became part of a Special Forces group that trained Vietnamese soldiers. After leaving the Army, he enrolled at Harvard Business School. That, he reports, was also highly formative.

“Harvard was extraordinarily helpful in teaching me to analyze problems on a purely academic front. It did more than that, actually. But in terms of overall effect, it was not even close to the U.S. Military Academy in making me who I am. West Point builds the entire structure of the man, the values of the man. It develops you in the whole.”

After he completed his MBA, Malek was a management consultant with McKinsey in Los Angeles for most of four years. Along the way, he and two classmates made a pact. They wanted to form their own business. To make that practical, they would draw straws. The winner would quit his job and spend full time searching for a company they could take over, then line up backers to help finance the acquisition. The other two pact-makers would keep their day jobs and share their pay so the third partner would have something to live on during their hunt.

And so the trio eventually moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina, as the owners of a company manufacturing hand tools. They turned the firm around. Two years later it went public and they sold their stakes.

Then, at the age of 32, Malek jumped to D.C. and entered government—first as a manager at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, next at the White House Personnel Office, finally ending up as the deputy at the Office of Management and Budget. He credits his West Point training for his meteoric political rise: “Many of the people around me were smarter, but I had more discipline, focus, determination, perseverance. I got up off the ground when I was knocked down. I never gave up.”

After leaving government, Malek joined the Marriott Corporation. Two years later, he was the company’s president. He held that position for eight years, during which period the stock price rose eight times and profits quintupled. The next 25 years brought a sequence of political duties (like running the 1988 Republican National Convention) and business jobs (CEO of Northwest Airlines, head of various commercial real estate, hotel, and private equity firms).

The Maleks have been big medical and education donors. The Malek School of Health Professions at Marymount University in Virginia honors Fred’s wife, Marlene, who is a nurse. The family has supported the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, and the Duke Cancer Institute.

It was Dan Christman who drew Malek into military-academy philanthropy. That was in the 1990s, and it has continued ever since. Malek has just started making payments on his latest major gift to West Point, which will not be officially announced until April 2013.

“I view the academy as the greatest institution in America,” he says. “It produces young leaders willing to put their lives as risk for their fellow citizens. These are some of the very best men and women we have, and I want to support them. I’m sure I couldn’t even get in today.”

Offering a Hand Up

Another cause where private donors have been very helpful to America’s three military academies is in making sure that in addition to having very high standards these institutions have wide open doors. There are a good many high schools in the U.S. that don’t offer the calculus, physics, and other classes needed for success within the engineering-intensive academy curricula. There are other young people who need assistance in gearing up to the rigorous discipline demands, or who lack adequate study skills. There are also enlisted men and women who develop aspirations to be an officer and need a bit of burnishing.

The crucial levelers for these men and women are a handful of military prep schools indirectly or directly affiliated with Annapolis, Colorado Springs, or West Point. These supply a crucial year of academic and military acculturation for academy candidates from inner cities, rural areas, minority groups, or other backgrounds—individuals who appear to have the capacity to be fine military officers but need some extra preparation. The prep schools make the academies more democratic, and also more rounded and impressive.

And they could not do their work without lots of philanthropy. Each year, private individuals donate millions of dollars so academy candidates can experience an intensive one-year pre-immersion. Given the nature of military service, it makes sense for America’s military academies to search broadly for leaders, rather than simply aping elite colleges with a focus on pure academics. “One of the most valuable things I learned during my time at the academy,” says James Kinnear, “was how to get along with my fellow man, with persons from very different backgrounds. In the very close quarters of the Navy, it is essential not to get irritated with others, to learn how to trust and rely on people of types you may not have known while you were growing up.”

And this skill has value far beyond military service. “It served me very well in the business world, and just helped make me a better citizen,” reports Kinnear. “Developing this capacity at the academy has made a tremendous, positive difference in my life, and it is one of the reasons I am so supportive of the academy today.”

Character Study

After growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sandy McDonnell attended Princeton University, but left college early to enter the Army, which was hungry for soldiers to man the imminent Normandy invasion. McDonnell was soon posted to a research lab where he assisted on the Manhattan Project. After his military discharge he went to work in his uncle’s aircraft-building company, which eventually became McDonnell Douglas. He ended up running the corporation for eight years.

McDonnell also managed another entity during this time—the Boy Scout troop in which his son earned Eagle rank. Eventually, McDonnell put in a stint as national president of the Boy Scouts of America. His experience with scouting set the philanthropic priorities that governed the next phase of his life, when he began giving away significant amounts of money. “I was so impressed with the positive impact that our son experienced in his Boy Scout troop that I felt character building, which is the primary mission of the BSA, should also be a basic part of our national educational process.”

McDonnell began building character in his own company. “When I was chairman of McDonnell Douglas, we implemented an ethics training program for all of our employees based on a code of ethics developed from the BSA Scout Oath and Law.” After he retired, he set up groups offering character education to K–12 students.

When it comes to higher education, McDonnell’s view is that “the military academies are far ahead of almost all of the other universities in the emphasis they place on character building. I hope universities all across the nation will emulate their programs for character development.” To encourage this, the McDonnell family made a $5 million pledge to the Air Force Academy in 2011 for a new Center for Character and Leadership Development.

Character training is one of the very favorite causes of private donors to America’s military academies. Mitch Hart, one of the founders of Home Depot, has been a sharp critic of ethical corner-cutting in business. He says “you can’t legislate morality or ethics, but you can damn sure demand it” in the workplace and in schools. A 1956 graduate of the Naval Academy, Hart has made a seven-figure gift to Annapolis to host a national conference that annually gathers together students from many U.S. colleges to discuss virtuous leadership.

At West Point, the William E. Simon, John M. Olin, and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations were instrumental in building and sustaining the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. The center trains cadets on moral choices, and reinforces West Point’s famously terse honor code (“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”). It also uses foundation funding to stage national conferences on ethics. Donors like the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation have helped the Naval Academy create on-campus space for similar programs.


Impromptu gathering after the West Point graduation. (Photo by author)

One philanthropist who has taken a deep interest in our military academies’ ability to build virtue in young Americans is businessman H. Ross Perot. While at the Naval Academy himself (class of 1953), he was instrumental in codifying their honor system. Perot was a major supporter of West Point’s Simon Center, and in 2010 he endowed their John Hottell Chair for Character Development. Hottell graduated near the top of his class of 1964 at the U.S. Military Academy, was a fine athlete, and won a Rhodes Scholarship. While subsequently studying at Oxford he won the British National Diving Championship two years in a row. He later commanded an airborne infantry company in Vietnam, before being killed in a helicopter crash in 1970.

Recognizing the dangers he faced, Hottell penned his own obituary in case it should be needed. Alas it was, and it ran in the New York Times. There is “a price which must be paid for all things of great value,” he wrote. “If there is nothing worth dying for . . . there is nothing worth living for.” For years, Perot handed out copies of Hottell’s full statement, before finally memorializing the officer with his professorship devoted to character issues.

Hard Results

Does all this teaching, inspiring, and hectoring produce concrete results in altered behavior? Apparently so. A 1998 study by Ohio researchers found that while America’s military academies haven’t stamped out problems like lying, cheating, and stealing, their performance in this area is “far superior” to civilian colleges. For instance, statistically measured cheating at civilian colleges “dwarfed” the level uncovered at our military academies.

Ethical training is no recent fad at the academies. Dwight Eisenhower once described personal character as a thing to which West Point “has always given single-minded, almost fanatical devotion.” What sets cadets and middies apart is more than what they don’t do—it’s also the things they do do. Homework is completed without excuses. Students come to classes prepared. Most will graduate without having cut a single class in their four years. Everyone stays in good physical shape. And the manners are from another planet. At the beginning of every class cadets stand at attention and salute the instructor, civilian or military—a gesture that seems heartfelt and appreciated on both sides.

“There’s just no other place outside of religious schools where ethics is taken so seriously,” one West Point civilian professor with previous experience at Notre Dame, Berkeley, and the University of Texas told me. “The discipline and the integrity that we find here, the closest thing to it is at a place like Yeshiva, or Notre Dame, or Wheaton College.”

Poet Jorie Graham was struck by her students while doing some special teaching at West Point. “What moved me deeply was the way they searched through the literature . . . in order to determine a right moral choice.” At Annapolis, an instructor with lots of parallel experience at civilian colleges summarizes that “midshipmen are eager, respectful, yet they question authority. They are very sensitive to the difference between effective leadership and raw power.”

Which bring us to a final reason many philanthropists cite for wanting to underwrite our military academies: They hope that academy training will serve as something of a counterweight, for all of America, against the many modern forces now pushing young people toward self-absorption and ethical sag. The goal is to bolster a practical moralism, long inculcated at the academies, that has mostly disappeared from other venues of public life.

Is this a realistic hope to place upon three small institutions that inject only about 3,000 newly educated young Americans into the national bloodstream each year? Keep in mind that less than 17 percent of U.S. military officers today are academy graduates. The rest of our military leaders come out of ROTC or Officer Candidate Schools.

Yet when the academies are functioning well, they do indeed become influential seedbeds. Each year, a relatively small number of academy grads enter their respective services and reinvigorate them with a fresh infusion of the ancient principles learned at the mother church. On a smaller scale, there is reason to believe the academies exert some similar continual influence on American society generally. One hint of that is the philanthropists profiled in this article who have come out of one of the academies, succeeded in the larger American society, and used their influence along the way to reinforce the academy-taught virtues.

Taking It beyond the Cloister

David Robinson graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987, went on to a career in the National Basketball Association, and finally ended up as a prominent philanthropist. (In 2004, he was awarded the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership.) A decade after leaving Annapolis, Robinson helped create the Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy. It trains three distinct audiences: midshipmen, active-duty sailors and marines, and civilians such as corporate managers. Here is the tri-level influence sought by many academy donors—education within the academy, influence on our armed forces as a whole, and a lever to nudge the wider American society.

Sometimes virtues cemented at our military academies spread across society just from being lived out by successful proponents. Bob McDonald was a good boy growing up in Indiana and Illinois—active in the Presbyterian church, a busy Scout, someone tugged from very early on by an inchoate interest in helping other people. “I remember being bothered by the existence of the Iron Curtain, and the unfairness of locking people away from freedom,” he explains.


Bob McDonald at his West Point graduation with President Gerald Ford.

“As I came of age, I realized I wanted some high purpose,” McDonald continues. “Somewhere along the line I got very interested in West Point, and I applied for admission for the first time when I was in sixth grade. My Congressman, who was Don Rumsfeld, laughed when he found out how young I was, but he encouraged me to keep trying. I took the West Point admissions exam every year after that. Finally, in 1971, I entered the academy.”

McDonald was active in the cadet chapel, rugby, and boxing. He graduated 13th in his class, and was brigade adjutant his final year. “I loved West Point, and what it did for me.” He says the first place he always stops when he makes visits today is the chapel. “I feel closer to God there than anywhere else, and I always pray.”

After graduation, he entered the infantry, became a Ranger, and served with the 82nd Airborne. For such a mild-mannered guy, McDonald went to extremes in his Army pursuits: jungle warfare school in Panama, arctic warfare training in Alaska, desert warfare school in Death Valley. I didn’t ask if he was trained to fight for space on grocery shelves, but that became part of his life after the Army.

When McDonald left the service in 1980, he interviewed with 30 different companies. He was determined to find a business where he could not only be successful but also serve some larger purpose and have chances to improve the lives of real people. When I ask him what the most important lesson he learned at West Point was, he says it can all be distilled into a line from the Cadet Prayer: “To choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”

He ended up going to work for Procter & Gamble, a company famous not only for its consistent success (they will receive more than 700,000 applications a year for about 7,000 global positions) but also for its good citizenship, its squeaky-clean culture (P&G’s purpose, values, and principles have been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 175 years), and its loyalty (the company almost exclusively promotes from the inside for all of its management jobs). “The company embodied the virtues I had been taught and wanted to build upon,” summarizes McDonald.

“Military education shows you that there are reasons for emphasizing personal character,” he notes. “As a leader you’re always on. Values can’t be compartmentalized into a time of day. You must be consistent all the time. And you have to put the organization above yourself.”

There are crucial ideas that McDonald puts foremost in leading his large company. He has codified some of them in a personal statement entitled “What I Believe In,” complete with references to relevant books. Some topic sentences: “Living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction.” “Everyone wants to succeed, and success is contagious.” And: “Companies must do well to do good, and must do good to do well.”

“My life’s purpose is to improve lives,” explains McDonald, who is clearly excited that his company is trusted by four billion people every year, around the world, to provide intimate health and hygiene products. “Today, the average man, woman, and child on the globe spends about $12 per year on P&G products. That gives us annual sales larger than the gross domestic product of more than two-thirds of the countries in the world. This provides both the responsibility and the opportunity to do more.”

“I don’t draw a distinction between a company’s profit motives and its social responsibility,” adds McDonald. “These two things are congruent. They’re not in opposition. Doing right by people can be an enormous source of inspiration that leads to better products, to business growth, and to social good.”

“I don’t draw a distinction between a company’s profit motives and its social responsibility,” adds McDonald. “These two things are congruent. They’re not in opposition. Doing right by people can be an enormous source of inspiration that leads to better products, to business growth, and to social good.”

McDonald’s example suggests an irony. America’s military academies may have their final influence far from battlefields, and far even from their own stone halls. The day-to-day actions of the men and women they launch into the world may accumulate many years later in ways hard to anticipate.

A School for Leaders

“West Point,” summarized Superintendent Maxwell Taylor in 1946, “is essentially a school for leaders.” And it teaches not just via book learning but by example. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf once wrote that West Point taught him honor in the most effective way possible: “It gave us war heroes for teachers.”

When he was himself an engineering mechanics instructor during a rotation at the U.S. Military Academy, Schwarzkopf reports he would often “put aside the textbook, sit on the edge of the desk, and talk about what it means to be an officer, about values and morality and honor. I felt that was my responsibility far more than teaching the principles of friction and why wheels roll down hills.

Writer James Salter, who graduated from West Point in 1945, describes it as “a great orphanage, chill in its appearance, rigid in its demands.” Yet it offered “comradeship, and a standard that seemed as high as anyone could know. It included self-reliance and death if need be. West Point did not make character, it extolled it. It taught one to believe in difficulty, the hard way.”

Members of a new generation of philanthropists believe those gray, granitic lessons are just what America needs today. How far into our society can they help stretch the long ghostly line of military academy leaders? That will be seen in their giving to come.

Karl Zinsmeister is vice president for publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable. His books include two volumes of embedded reporting from the battlefields of Iraq and a nonfiction Marvel comic book about military heroism.

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