During a Veterans Day ceremony commemorating his life and service, University of Maryland University College dedicated the Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr. Ballroom at its College Park Marriot Hotel and Conference Center in Adelphi, Maryland, heralding him as the university’s most illustrious alumnus, a remarkable military leader, and a tireless education advocate.
As part of the ceremony, UMUC also announced the creation of the Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. Military Student/Veteran of the Year Award. The inaugural recipient, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alicia Hunt, who is serving in Afghanistan, provided a video message of acceptance and thanks.
“Gen. Vessey’s career and service to our country are legendary,” UMUC President Javier Miyares said during the Nov. 10 event. “Gen. Vessey’s commitment to the men and women who wear the uniform of our country stands as a constant reminder of the importance of our mission, the power of education to change lives, and as an inspiration to all who aspire to lead with integrity, courage and grace.”
Gen. Vessey is the only chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who began his military career as an enlisted man. His advance through the ranks to that distinguished post was accompanied by his belief in education to get ahead.
President Ronald Reagan appointed him the 10th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in June 1982, and he served in that position for three years. In 1995, Gen. Vessey was appointed UMUC’s first chairman of its Board of Visitors.
He joined the Minnesota National Guard in 1939 at the age of 16 and earned a battlefield commission at Anzio, a WW II battle that played a role in the liberation of Rome. He also commanded troops in the Korean and Vietnam wars, earning a Distinguished Service Cross for his action in pushing back a North Vietnamese assault at Suoi Tre in 1967.
He was a Lt. Colonel raising his family of three children when he earned his undergraduate degree in military science from UMUC in 1963.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. General Gary Cheek told those gathered at the ceremony that Gen. Vessey’s story is what he loves about the U.S. Army. “You can go from private to four-star general. All you have to be is motivated and talented.”
He said the Army encourages advanced education for up-and-coming leaders such as Gen. Vessey.
“When the Army recognizes soldiers of great potential, we find ways to get them to school to get what they need to make them greater,” Cheek said. “They sent him here [to UMUC] to do that.”
After his service on the Board of Visitors, Gen. Vessey established the John W. Vessey Scholarship Fund at UMUC to help support students seeking an undergraduate degree. That scholarship gives preference to military personnel— especially those who have earned Purple Hearts—and their families.
But the general’s daughter, Sarah Vessey, who spoke at the dedication, said that her father’s support for higher education extended beyond UMUC. As the family was putting his affairs in order following his death in 2016 at the age of 94, she said they discovered Gen. Vessey scholarships at other institutions, as well.
She described her father at the time he finished his UMUC degree as a man immersed in family life, even while leading his military career and education—busy with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, church, Bible study, handball, mowing the lawn.
“He did it like every other motivated person, a little bit at a time,” she said.
Ricard Blewitt, who succeeded Gen. Vessey as chairman of UMUC’s Board of Visitors, said he continually sought the general’s advice. He said that, once, he ran into Sen. John McCain at a Washington Nationals game and, as they got to talking about Gen. Vessey, the senator summed him up perfectly.
“I want you to know one thing about Gen. Vessey,” Blewitt said McCain told him. “He is the greatest citizen-soldier I have ever met in my life.”
View the event photo gallery.
Watch the entire dedication ceremony, including remarks from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh; Rushern L. Baker, county executive, Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Lloyd “Milo” Miles (U.S. Army, Ret.) UMUC's chief operating officer and senior vice president of global military operations.