Some military heroes are impossible to forget. General John W. Vessey Jr., who earned his bachelor’s degree in military science from University of Maryland University College in 1963, is one of them. Vessey’s long and distinguished military career cluminated in him being appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Ronald Reagan, making Vessey the highest-ranking military officer in the country.
Vessey’s military career began when he purposely misrepresented his age to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard at 16 years old. His unit was activated just months before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. His service took him to North Africa, where his unit took a strategic hill near Tunis at a critical juncture in the allied campaign; to Italy, where his unit saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war; to Korea during the tense aftermath of that war; and to Vietnam, where he was wounded defending a firebase from onrushing Vietcong invaders, for which he won a Distinguished Service Cross.
Vessey was also a lifelong advocate of education. He had said that he tried to pattern his own life after a lecture that he first heard discussed in a UMUC classroom titled, “The Five Evidences of an Education,” by Nicholas Murray Butler, the American philosopher, diplomat, and educator. The lecture praised the correct use of language, refined and gentle dealings with fellow human beings, the power and habit of reflection, the power to grow, and the power to act with efficiency and effectiveness.
In a letter to the UMUC community honoring Vessey after his death in 2016, President Javier Miyares wrote, “Gen. Vessey’s career and service to our country are legendary . . . [He] will long be remembered as UMUC’s most distinguished alumnus, and rightfully so. His life of service and commitment to the men and women who wear the uniform of our country stand as a reminder of the importance of our mission, of the power of education to change lives, and as an inspiration to women and men everywhere who aspire to lead with integrity, courage, and grace. He will be deeply missed.”
Today, Vessey’s heroism continues: The General John W. Vessey Jr. Scholarship Fund awards scholarships to degree-seeking students in the Undergraduate School and gives preference to Purple Heart recipients, active-duty servicemembers and their immediate families, military personnel who are currently transitioning to civilian life, and students with demonstrated financial need.