Former commandant looks back, with humor

Professor Michael Kelley sat back in the library armchair as he looked through the Norwich War Whoop of 1974. As he flipped through the pages, he knew exactly where to go as he pointed at a picture of a cadet colonel that shared a striking resemblance with himself.

“Here I am over here, without the mustache”, said Kelley. “The mustache started at ROTC summer camp in ‘73, I didn’t want to have my official portrait in Jackman Hall and the one in the yearbook having a mustache.”

Kelley would keep his mustache during his reign as cadet colonel in 1974 and during his tenure of commandant of cadets as well.

Kelley keeps in contact with the current corps of cadets leaders, both students and administration while he teaches as an engineering professor.

“When you give up command, you should let the new guys have the job,” said Kelley. “I’ll occasionally go up there for a meeting or something, but I try to leave them to their jobs.”

Kelley offered some advice to the new leadership in the commandant’s office as well.

“Get out there and mix it up with the students. That’s an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do,” said Kelley. “Go to pub night or karaoke over at The Mill, or show up at an event where they don’t expect you to be there, just observe, participate, strike up a conversation with somebody. It’s important to see the commandant as a human being.”

Kelley and his wife would often go to the dining hall once a month.

“We just showed up, and I believe that’s important,” said Kelley. “Let the students see you have a human or family side too as well as the job part of your presence.”

Kelley had a lot of respect for his own commandants that were here during his time, and they influenced his leadership style.

“John Wadsworth was the commandant at the time, he influenced me more than he probably knows,” said Kelley. “When it’s a hard time I think about him, and I think about the good people who have come from this place who have miss-stepped now and then or had a bad day. I have to remind myself they are fundamentally good human beings.”

Kelley’s family is unique in another way, which is that he lives in the only commandant housing, famously located right next to the football field. They still pay Norwich to this day. His entire family is a Norwich Family.

“We have four children who went to Norwich, our son who graduated in 2015 is the tenth in our family to graduate from Norwich, and that’s including my wife’s family,” said Kelley. “We got a son-in-law as well who’s graduated from Norwich.”

What many cadets may not know about Kelley is his role in starting what is now known as the Dog River Run, which is a culminating event signaling the end of Rook Week in the modern-day corps of cadets. How it came about has a distinct tinge of humor that involves the longstanding Vermont tradition of skinny-dipping.

“It was a very different time,” said Kelley. “Having to write a letter to Northfield apologizing for the Corps of Cadets going skinny-dipping in the Dog River – that is the product of the very first Dog River Run.”

It was the end of Rook Week in 1974 and the corps wasn’t nearly as organized, according to Kelley.

“Yes, we did things like get uniforms and teach people how to march,” said Kelley. “But it wasn’t quite nearly as structured as it is today.”

The Corps of Cadets not only looked different in 1974, but also thought differently. Kelley remembers that day when they brought the Rooks up to what is now the Norwich Cemetery, which was then Dole Farm.

“The view was even more spectacular then it was today, and we wanted to do something physically demanding, but we also wanted them to see down and see the university from that perspective”, said Kelley. “We were in Vietnam-style fatigues and t-shirts, and we ran them through the river to cool them off.”

Some of the cadets took it upon themselves to go skinny-dipping, according to Kelley. Little did they know the Corps of Cadets weren’t the only ones out that day enjoying the weather.

“There were some people at a bridge that doesn’t exist anymore, and people were standing there, civilians from the community,” said Kelley. “It was then I had my first opportunity to write my letter of apology.”

The spur-of-the-moment decision would go down in history and forever change how the modern corps came to signal the end of Rook Week. As Kelley notes, the aftermath was not as fun as the actual event.

“I did have to eat a dose of humble pie,” said Kelley. “The phones had been ringing and the people from town had been calling and ‘oh by the way you need to write a letter and here’s the people you need to write to.’”

According to Kelley, that little bit of spontaneity and fun is healthy. “At first, I was chagrined at the idea I had to write a letter,” said Kelley.

“I took a deep breath, smiled, and guess you could say ‘the rest is history.’”

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