Cadet tradition at Norwich University: It’s not necessarily what you think it is

Assistant Commandant William Passalaqua, NU class of 1988, shows off his cadet handbook from his time at Norwich University.

Assistant Commandant William Passalaqua, NU class of 1988, shows off his cadet handbook from his time at Norwich.

Tradition. The hallmark phrase of rookdom and go-to reason for doing anything on the Norwich campus.

Why run around scantily clad in the dead of winter? Tradition, of course. But traditions can become a bad game of generational telephone. If you ask Assistant Commandant William Passalaqua, a class of 1988 graduate and former cadet colonel, the message he passed on is much different than how cadets hear about tradition today.

“I don’t think we celebrate what our alums have done and what we are a part of,” said Passalaqua. Passalaqua explained that he views tradition as something that has lasted the test of time from generation to generation, not a few-year fling. These elements of Norwich made his cut: the corps system, the class rank structure, and the army model that the school uses.

Cadets lose sight of the bigger picture because it’s “your snapshot of time that you remember,” Passalaqua said. Having seen a number of “games” cadre like to play arise with rooks over the years, Passalaqua said that many student-claimed traditions are anything but.

Synchronized door locking, not a tradition. Night-time rook routines, not a tradition. Posting a paw to ask a question, not a tradition. “That is middle school stuff,” Passalaqua said, “This is stuff that would get you laughed at in the real military.”

So if memories of yelling goodnight to cadre each and every night, or standing at attention in the gutter with arm stretched out in front are not what they were claimed to be, what are they? Just an off-the-cuff idea some invigorated cadre member had just a few years ago? How do we distinguish between the experience of many and the memories of just a few?

Prof. Michael Kelley is an associate professor in the David Crawford School of Engineering and a 1974 graduate and another former cadet colonel. Echoing Passalaqua, he said, “I see tradition as a long-standing idea. Not something here today, and gone tomorrow.”

Kelley feels that traditions provide a sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself, and in some ways, form the roots of what the university is trying to accomplish as an institution.

Army Captain Dana Lafarier, a 2006 graduate and a military science instructor, listed these three key factors as integral to making a lasting tradition: be positive, influence others, and be remembered by many.

Lafarier also said the longevity and strength of a tradition depends greatly on how widely it is known and how strong the reason for it is. If you just say, “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” then someone doesn’t know why it’s being done, he notes.

Spanning a period of just 30 years in corps’ history, the three alums and now university faculty had an easy time racking up claimed traditions that did not make their cut. Take, for example, the UP 500.

The winter event didn’t even come close to making Kelley’s list because it wasn’t even around during his time, he said. Passalaqua was confident the event started in the early 70s, as a result of the streaking rage that spread through the nation during that time. During his experience in the second half of the decade, the UP 500 was only a rook event.

“Companies would go out around the UP and run around with usually a jock strap or a canteen,” Passalaqua said.

This was already a change from just a few years prior, Lafarier said. The “good ol’ days” had students making a run down to Depot Square in Northfield and back.

By the early 2000s, during Lafarier’s own experience, the tradition had moved to the sophomores and rooks had not only been barred from participating, but couldn’t even watch. “All the Golf company freshman had to go to the opposite side of the UP in our barracks so that we couldn’t see,” said Lafarier.

In those days too, there were cadets who pushed the limits too far and got in trouble, as did students last year. But at its core, Lafarier said it was just a fun snowball fight that provided him with “a positive experience.” And despite being a spur of the moment event that was passed around by word of mouth (before the days of Facebook posts and instant connectivity), the commandant staff was kept in the loop. “I know that there were commandant staff out there,” said Lafarier. An old picture he has as evidence captured a buddy saluting an officer as he ran by wearing “just gloves, a hat, and goggles.”

Not all changes to “tradition” have been bad. Recognition, when Rooks are accepted as full-fledged corps members. is one of the major events of the year at Norwich. Interestingly, it was an experience Kelley never got to have: He was not entirely sure when it started but he knows it wasn’t even remotely an occurrence during his rookdom.

“We wore our white name tags the whole year, and we were rooks the whole year,” Kelley said. Some privileges were earned and pressure from the cadre eased up over the semesters, but the most recognition Kelley ever got was the personal satisfaction of walking his army greens down to the uniform store to have corporal stripes sewn on. He wishes there had been more.

“I like the idea that there is something that says I made it, I got to this event, and by and large our class has achieved a number of positive outcomes to get to this date,” Kelley said.

One common theme emerged from both Kelley and Lafarier in their discussions of tradition, and it is something they see as a loss. Of all the traditions to have come and gone through the years, it was the one they were saddest to see missing: the accountability students used to hold for one another.

“Everyone now wants to be friends here,” said Lafarier, making a stark contrast from his experience just a decade ago. If there was to be one difference between what cadets refer to as the old corps and the present day new corps, it would be that cadets did a better job of holding their standard and holding each other accountable, he said.

“I remember making on-spot corrections,” Lafarier said, “and I remember them being made to me.” It’s not something that requires one cadet to become irate at another, but just a calm reminder because everyone knows what the rules are.

Looking back on a time 30 years prior to today, Kelley suggested, “Maybe it was the times.” Kelley added, “but I think we did a better job policing each other.” If out drinking with friends, cadets would do a good job of keeping each other in line and acting appropriate.

Using a group of friends who had a few members getting out of control at a bar as an example, Kelley said the intoxicated students had “two choices, either they calmed down and got back into a respectable mode, or we loaded them into a car and someone who was safe brought them back to campus.”

He said this code of ethics applied to fights, it applied to damage in the barracks, it applied to any situation where the wellbeing of a fellow cadet was at risk.

“We were trying to help each other stay out of trouble and not let something escalate,” Kelley said. But even more than that, it was respected and appreciated. Cadets wouldn’t be mad at each other the next day for stepping in and intervening; they would be grateful.

Despite decades of difference between their cadet experiences, the three faculty came together on one key theme: it is the unglamorous and the daily things that cadets do as members of the corps that tie them to the impressive cadet heritage of Norwich. Those are the things that can be considered true tradition, and that message is not stressed enough.

To put it another way, tradition is not the kind of thing that people like to boast about, but “that experience of standing outside in five degree weather with wind chill for formation, that’s something that is relatable to everyone,” said Passalaqua.

It is not about the misery factor that cadets like to attach to made up traditions, it’s not about doing something because it was done to you, it’s about honoring the heritage that we are a part of explained Passalaqua. Or as Lafarier said, “If you have a tradition, there has to be a reason behind doing it.”

These traditions are possible to have without having cadets take things too far, said Kelley. But what that takes is a not just a few people saying something isn’t right, but everyone unifying together that certain actions aren’t right. “We have to be willing to grab ourselves, and pull ourselves back and say no, we are not going there.”

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