The Power of Organizational Mentoring

A Tactical Officer who had an influence on me when I was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute died back in March. I didn’t find out about it until the other day. This man had a profound impact on my life.

His passing made me think about what I call “organizational mentoring.” It is not an exact thing, but I think it is something worthy of discussion.

In our lives, we join organizations either voluntarily or involuntarily. They are places like schools, sports teams, churches, clubs, and other organizations that impart structure and discipline into our lives. There is something called MeetUp that exists to create a critical mass of folks with similar interests.

We long to be with people like ourselves.

Not every organization provides a platform for organizational mentoring. In my life, it was the church, work, school, the Army, and business. I am talking about a time after I was away from home and my parents.

I want to take a second and explore the power of mentoring and organization when I went off to college at Virginia Military Institute. I had never seen VMI when I arrived on the bus.

It looks like a prison.

That’s Stonewall Jackson and the Rockbridge Battery of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — combat veterans of the Mexican War and the Civil War.

VMI has a very broad campus carry policy with each cadet being issued a rifle and a bayonet that they store in their room. Not too many schools have a battery of cannons at their dorms.

That arch leading into barracks has an inscription that says, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

Stonewall Jackson, who taught at VMI, said that.

When you arrive at VMI, you are part of a Rat (charming name for freshmen/women) mass that will be deconstructed — they shaved your head in my day, a strong symbol that what you were before is no longer — and rebuilt in accordance with a system that has produced citizen-soldiers since 1839.

So, do they have a system at VMI, Big Red Car?

Yes, dear reader, they have a system. Since 1839, they have a system

Military Organization 

You are segregated into companies — a military organizational dynamic — by height. I was tall, so I was in Foxtrot Company — the jocks and the tall cadets. The fun guys.

You are put in a squad, in a platoon, and a company. You will have a company commander, an executive officer, a platoon leader, a platoon sergeant, a squad leader. You will have a lot of supervision.

There is no meaner force on the earth than a third class corporal who is charged with supervising you. They are one year removed from where you stand and they are as vicious as rattlesnakes.

Class System

You are assigned a First Classman (senior) for whom you will perform menial chores such as assisting him in dressing for Friday parades by putting on his cross dykes — white straps across his chest. You will put his bed up in the morning. We slept on roll up mattresses on fold up cots. Very luxurious. This is your senior “dyke.”

He is your protector, your mentor, your safe harbor, and your guide. What he doesn’t know about VMI and the system isn’t worth knowing. If he doesn’t know something, he will find out who does.

This was before Google. Your dyke was sort of like a vintage Google before they invented personal computers and cell phones. If you had a question, you asked your dyke.

I had great luck in getting a great dyke and dyking in a great room. First rate guys all around.

If an upperclassman unfairly targets you for abuse or hazing, your dyke will go “reason” with him.

Academic Supervision

You are assigned an academic adviser. If you are a civil engineer, then you get a civil engineer prof as your adviser.

I won the Irish sweepstakes with my academic adviser. I can still feel the favorable pressure of his hands on my head.

Your first year, you will get grades four times per semester. You will report to your faculty adviser with your report card (he will have it already) and he will tell you how the cow is going to eat the cabbage.

If you are struggling with Rat Calculus — a given — you will be assigned a tutor. You will master calculus because you are an engineer in training. [Rat calculus created more English majors than Shakespeare.]

Your faculty adviser will ensure you have a quiet place to study and he will come around once a week — unannounced — to check on you. You better not be in the Post Exchange drinking Cokes.

Tactical Staff

Once you survive your Rat torture phase, you will assimilate with your company and fall under the umbrella of a Tactical Officer.

In my day, these were all energetic Captains recently returned from Vietnam. The fellow who recently passed away was my Tac Officer. He took a very special interest in me.

The Commandant of Cadets will be the font of discipline and the sole representative of the school leadership resident in the barracks.

I had a great Tac and the Commandant took a real interest in me. The stories I can tell.

Again, incredibly strong men and impact.

So what, Big Red Car?

OK, what I am trying to convey is that if you fall into the right kinds of organizations, the mentoring, the character development, the growing up is automatic. You can’t fail to develop. The system does it.

You never see it being done. Some of it formal as I have outlined above.

The VMI system is not something you can “opt into” or “opt out of.” It is part of the air you breathe in the Shenandoah Valley under the shadow of House Mountain.

It is also a choice.

VMI shares a property line with Washington & Lee University. Two famous schools with deep historic roots side-by-side with two very different systems in Lexington, Virginia — a charming Southern town.

Why is this important, Big Red Car?

We have destroyed the institutions that used to develop character amongst our youth. Those priests, coaches, teachers — role models, mentors. Our youth are tied to their computers and phones. They are lonely and alone. Disconnected.

The Boy Scouts have women in their ranks for goodness sake. <<< Very unwoke comment. Mea culpa.

I think much of what we see with these mass killings is the result of missing fathers, inadequate fathering, broken families, the loss of character development, and the loneliness of being unattached from organizations that can unconsciously mentor our youth thereby erecting guard rails and injecting discipline.

It is a high stakes game.

Bottom line it, Big Red Car

Can you send all of your sons and daughters to VMI? No. You can, however, send some of them and I heartily recommend it.

Send them there, wait four years, go pick them up and they will be changed. Forged in a hot furnace. Ready to bite the ass off a bear.

Can you ensure they are involved in organizations in which the dividend is organizational mentoring? Yes, but you will have to work at it. You will have to make it happen. You may have to break a sweat. [Be comforted: nobody ever drowned in their own sweat.]

So, dear reader, there you have it. Thank you to the men who guided me through VMI — my classmates, my First Class Dyke, my academic advisor, my Tac Officer, the Commandant — but not that prick third class corporal. You, I still want to run into and knock your teeth out.¬†

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Great weekend to you. Call somebody you haven’t spoken to in a long time and brighten their life for fifteen minutes and then go have a cheeseburger.