Sunday, May 24, 2009

Farewell to the MMI High School, 1887-2009

Since its founding in 1887, Marion Military Institute has always included high school-aged students. In fact, MMI was founded as an academy and as a college preparatory institution. Originally, high school students were incorporated into the overall academic, military, and extracurricular structure of the Institute, with no official designation being given to the high school program. These students were not even singled out in the cadet rosters found in the MMI catalogues and annuals.

Founded in 1842, Howard College, MMI’s predecessor, included high school-aged students.

MMI was founded in 1887 as an academy and as a college preparatory institution.

MMI’s predecessor, Howard College, founded in Marion in 1842, had also included high school through college-aged students. In the late 19th Century, Marion Military Institute even awarded the bachelor’s degree to honor graduates, plus, the occasional master’s degree!

It was not until the 1920s that The Miana, MMI’s yearbook, separated the high school and junior college programs. The High School included freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, but these students remained incorporated into both the overall military structure of the Corps of Cadets, and in the extracurricular activities of the Institute including athletics. Later, the High School organized its own varsity athletic teams – football, baseball, and basketball - at first; plus, it had its own cheerleaders, Homecoming Court members, Senior Prom, etc., just as would be expected at a civilian high school.

MMI football in the early 1940s.

Prep Baseball in 1958-1959.

Prep Football in 1964-1965.

Prep Basketball in 1973.

Prep Cheerleaders in 1987. Camie (Salter) Jones, MMI faculty member, stands at far right.

The 1995 Senior Prom.

2004 Prep Girls Basketball.

2004 Prep Wrestling.

On May 23, 2009, the High School of Marion Military Institute will graduate its final class of ten cadets, marking an end to an era. For some 122 years, high school students have graced the MMI campus, and it is with a heavy heart that the Institute bids the High School department “farewell.”

(All images credit: Marion Military Institute and the MMI Archives)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Red Wilkins, JC '60, All-American

Red Wilkins (Taylor Dovention Wilkins, Jr.), A.A. 1960, serves as president of the MMI Board of Advisors. He is a principal in the law firm of Wilkins, Bankester, Biles, and Wynn, P.A., with offices in his hometown of Bay Minette, Alabama, plus in nearby Fairhope and Robertsdale. A man of many talents, Red is especially noted for being an outstanding athlete in high school, at MMI, at Alabama, and with the Denver Broncos.

Red Wilkins at the May 1, 2009, MMI Board Meeting on campus. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

Born and raised in Bay Minette, Red graduated from Baldwin County High School in 1958. An all-around athlete, he earned a total of ten letters in football, basketball, and baseball. An All-State football player, Red also co-captained the team.

Entering MMI in 1958, Red graduated with the A.A. degree in 1960. While at the Institute, he served as a cadet master sergeant (first sergeant) for “C” Company, was a member of Morgan’s Raiders and the Monogram Club, made the Commandant’s List, and earned two letters each in football and basketball, and one in baseball. Playing both offensive and defensive end in football, Red was selected as a Junior College All-American.

On the basketball court, the six foot-plus Wilkins played a key role in MMI earning a trip to the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchison, Kansas. He was also selected for the 1959-1960 NJCAA All-Region Basketball Team.

In 1992, Red Wilkins was inducted into the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC) Hall of Fame.

Cadet Master Sergeant Wilkins of “Charlie” Company. (Credit: 1960 Orange and Black, MMI yearbook)

Wilkins played football for two years for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama. He again played both offensive and defensive end. Red was a member of the 1961 national championship team which played in the Sugar Bowl in 1962. He also played for the Denver Broncos.

Graduating from Alabama in 1963 with the B.A. degree, Red entered the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, where he completed his J.D. degree in 1966, and was admitted to the Alabama Bar. Red was President of his Senior Law Class. He then spent two years as an Army captain, including one year in Vietnam as an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry battalion.

Returning from the war to Bay Minette, Red Wilkins served as County Attorney for Baldwin County, plus began his own law firm – what is today Wilkins, Bankester, Biles, and Wynn, P.A. He is a past president of the Baldwin County Bar Association (among other legal honors), and has served as a scoutmaster and as an elder and Sunday school teacher in the First Presbyterian Church of Bay Minette.

Red Wilkins is married to the former Judy Richardson of Bogalusa, LA, and they have three children.

Red Wilkins and COL Jim Benson at the 2007 MMI Golf Classic, sponsored by Red Wilkins at Steelwood, in Loxley, AL. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

Red Wilkins and Chancellor Bradley Byrne at the 2008 Veterans Day Celebration in Birmingham. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

Finally, Jim Benson once remarked to me that before he even met Red Wilkins, he had a long telephone conversation with him. Remembering Red’s deep Southern drawl and Good Ole Boy persona, Jim was surprised to meet a tall, rather distinguished-looking gentleman, elegant in a Hart, Schaffner & Marx tailored suit complete with silk tie with dimple! Red Wilkins has what the military calls “Command Presence.” He is also one of MMI’s finest graduates.

Monday, May 11, 2009

COL James Benson: A Ceremony of Lessons

On June 1, 2009, after serving as president of MMI for five years, COL James Benson, USMC Ret., will assume the presidency of Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Many of us here will be sad to see Jim and Mary leave.

Jim and Mary Benson. (Credit: Marion Military Institute)

The Bensons at the 2008 MMI Christmas Party. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

I’ve known Jim Benson since the mid-1990s when we were both on the staff at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia. I served BC as their archivist and museum curator. Upon his retirement from the USMC in 1995, COL Benson returned to BC, his alma mater (Class of 1965) to serve as assistant to the president (also, Class of 1965). Working his way through several responsible positions to become a vice president, Benson’s no-nonsense, can-do, attitude both impressed and scared some of the less productive members of the faculty and staff.

Founded in 1880, and affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist denomination which is one of the Historic Peace Churches along with the Quakers and the Mennonites, Bridgewater College was not ready for a retired Marine colonel in a high leadership position – even if he was one of their graduates! Jim Benson came to kick butt and take names and everyone knew when he was walking the campus – a silent alarm would shoot around from building to building. Folks would quickly get their acts together – men would literally stand straighter, taller, as he passed by – and the College would suddenly become even more productive. Much of what Jim was involved in at Bridgewater was behind the scenes, and I never heard him take credit for a lot things that he was at least partially responsible for accomplishing. For example, BC’s football team (Division III), once in danger of becoming the worst team in division history, suddenly, in a just a few years time, shot up to No. 2 in the nation in Division III, losing by only three points (30-27) to perennial powerhouse Mount Union College of Ohio in the nationally-televised championship game in 2001. (Mount Union has won 10 NCAA Division III National Championships!)

The “miracle” of the BC football team’s turn-around can be attributed to a number of factors, of course (their great coach, Mike Clark), but Jim Benson was a prime mover and shaker behind the scenes from start to finish, and I firmly believe that he helped to give BC one of the truly great moments in its history. When I first came to Bridgewater College in 1993, the most exciting thing about the football games (the stadium was always sparsely filled) was when the cheerleaders put down their pom-poms, picked up a microphone, and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in two-part harmony. When I left BC in 2005, the stadium was packed for every home game and the team was imbued with a “winning” attitude. (From 2001-2005, BC won five consecutive Old Dominion Athletic Conference Championships! Mike Clark remains the head football coach)

From Dr. Phillip C. Stone, President of Bridgewater College: “Col. Jim Benson is the epitome of a leader. Watching him and serving with him constitute a leadership lesson at the highest level. His impeccable integrity, his commitment to excellence in all things, and his selfless sense of duty and service make him a remarkable leader.”

The Bensons in The MMI Chapel. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

From Nick Picerno, Chief of Police and Director of Campus Safety at Bridgewater College: “Colonel Jim Benson’s persona reflects the very essence of the word ‘leadership.’ His service to our nation is a shining example of his strength of character and patriotism. Mediocrity has no place in his vernacular. His commitment to achieving excellence serves as an inspiration for others to emulate.”

COL James Benson takes the Review. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

From Mike Clark, Bridgewater College’s greatest football coach: “When athletics answered to Colonel Benson you knew you could count on two things, accountability and support. There were times when the first part of the equation could be harsh, but even after the difficult conversations you left his office knowing he just wanted you to be better. On a college campus there are many competing voices. With Jim, when the administrative door was shut, you knew you had a man who was fighting for your interests. I always felt Dr. Stone had the football vision, but Jim had the tactical skills from an administrative sense to get things changed here with football. I enjoyed many a conversation with Jim out back on his porch overlooking the college. He was a great leadership consultant.”

“As An Officer of Marines.” (Credit: USMC; Anthony Edgeworth, photographer)

Jim Benson will do well at Riverside, and they are lucky to get him. Life can be “a ceremony of lessons” (Josiah Bunting). COL Benson – whose father was killed in the Pacific during World War II – has gone from commanding Marines to working at his alma mater with its then core Brethren leadership, to helping MMI become a viable state institution.

And, yes, the lovely Mary – Jim’s better half - will “wow” them in Gainesville, just as she has in Bridgewater and in Marion.