Article by Dr Ryan Pemberton, Director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College
Officer. Gentleman. Movie star. Professor. Diplomat. President of the College. To spy. Civic leader. Intelligence official. Sunday school teacher.
All of these terms and more describe Lieutenant-General Samuel V. Wilson (US Army-Ret.), The former president of Hampden-Sydney College who died in 2017. General Sam, as he was affectionately called, a carried out a fascinating and impactful mission. and a meaningful life — one that the public can learn more about by visiting an ongoing exhibit at the Esther Thomas Atkinson Museum in Hampden-Sydney entitled “An Officer and a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Lieutenant-General Samuel V Wilson. “
A proud native of Price Edward County, Sam was born on Rice’s family farm, enlisting as a bugle at just 16 to serve in World War II in June 1940. Legend has it that Sam listened to Winston Churchill on the radio . night and was so moved that he woke up and traveled the six miles from Rice to downtown Farmville to begin a professional journey that would bring him home 37 years later. Shortly after enlisting, he found himself in the famous 5307th Composite Unit “Merrill’s Marauders”. Sam served as the unit’s chief reconnaissance officer and later as a technical advisor in the 1962 Hollywood blockbuster of the same name.
After the war he studied Russian and attended the University of Colombia. This experience led him to serve in Eastern Europe where he spent time in the CIA underground service and as a foreign zone officer in the military. During the Vietnam era, Sam was a foreign service officer and diplomat working to build the capacity of our allies. From 1971 to 1973, Sam was Defense Attaché in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Rumor has it that Sam was also a CIA station chief around the same time. This dual service is so remarkable that it is possible that no other person has fulfilled both roles at the same time. His career was crowned with a stint as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He retired as a three-star general in 1977. Along the way, Sam was credited with coining the term “counterinsurgency” and played a key role in the development of the unit known as the name of Delta Force. He has been elected to many Halls of Fame and has advised Tom Clancy on several of his books. If a film was shot about his life, it would be classified as fiction.
What did Sam have to do at “retirement?” »Hollywood? New York? Washington DC? Sam chose to return home to what, in his words, “was his favorite place with his favorite people.” Upon his retirement from the Army, he retraced his steps by traveling from Farmville to Rice Farm and continued to serve the people and place who gave him everything he needed for his exceptional career. Sam has been called to serve as a prominent citizen in various organizations in Prince Edward County and Southern Virginia, including the Longwood College Visitors Council, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Higher Education in Virginia, and as chairman of the board of directors of the RR Moton museum. Sam began teaching at Hampden-Sydney College shortly after his return, became the college’s 22nd president in 1992, and served with great distinction until 2000.
Adored by students, General Sam was famous for teaching Sunday School every Sunday morning and for inviting these students to Middlecourt, the President’s home in Hampden-Sydney, for Mis Susi’s famous Sunday dinners. Always quick with a joke and exceptionally charismatic, Sam would often joke that he “would see 10 students at Sunday school and 30 somehow show up for Sunday dinner … Mis Susi would miraculously more than enough food… it was like bread and fish.
The students loved him because he was there. Track and field events, classes, Commons breakfast, Sunday school, campus events – General Sam was there. The holistic growth of “his young people” in the hope that they would become the “good men and good citizens” necessary to perpetuate our republic was his primary mission; this feeling was palpable on campus.
After being elected president, General Sam said that “the most important person on this campus is the student, followed closely thereafter by the faculty and staff who mentor him. The most important thing happening on this campus is this colloquy between the student and the mentor. Everything else is secondary and supportive. When he retired in May 2000, he closed his debut with these last words as President: “Now is your world; it is no longer mine. It is a beautiful blue jewel … a shining sphere. Love it, cherish it, protect it and keep it.
Upon his retirement, the college named the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest in his honor. The center is home to the Hampden-Sydney leadership and civic education programs. It coordinates two college miners (Public Interest Leadership and National Security Studies), hosts numerous conferences and programs throughout the year, and is home to the Wilson Leadership Fellows Program, an extracurricular effort to provide young men with skills, traits and experiences to help students become the best versions of themselves. The mission of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest is to “prepare men of character for important lives.”
As a former General Sam’s student, I am honored to serve as the director of the Wilson Center. General Sam’s memory serves as a model. Our current students haven’t had the chance to know him, but every young man we work with learns or is inspired by his life of service. They are an important part of his heritage.
When General Sam died in June 2017, his family donated almost all of his property, personal effects and writings to the college. It is a real treasure comprising 307 boxes of papers, books and writings. Highlights include his army induction papers, green beret, bugle, diplomatic passports, signed books, photos, awards, personal correspondence, and writings on everything from national security policy higher education and civic affairs. Two years ago, a group of staunch supporters provided funds for the college to hire a full-time archivist. Archivist Dr Colin Woodward completed his work in June 2021.
Director of the Bortz Library and Chair of the Wilson Center Faculty Advisory Committee Shaunna Hunter said that “working with the Wilson Collection has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career” and that as as we move forward, we will “add steel shelves to contain the collection. and ensuring that our research tools are available online to researchers while digitizing selected portions of the material. »Researchers or students interested in higher education, WWII history, the Vietnam era, CIA training, the Cold War, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency theory or simply 20th century American history can benefit greatly from this collection.
The Esther Thomas Atkinson Museum opened an exhibition dedicated to this special collection in spring 2021. “An Officer and a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Lt. General Samuel V. Wilson” was curated by Atkinson Museum Director Angela Way and Dr. Richard McClintock. The exhibition is open from 10 to 12 and from 1 to 5 on weekdays and special events on Saturdays until the fall semester 2021.
All are welcome and encouraged to attend, especially friends from Farmville and Southside Virginia. General Sam was from Prince Edward County. He was born here and died here. It was his house. This exhibition examines his life and also firmly connects him to this place.
To know General Sam is to know Southside Virginia, and to know Southside Virginia is to know General Sam. These traits that made General Sam special – humility, a belief in education, a commitment to service. , friendliness, a strong work ethic, an ability to see the whole person, authenticity and a deep faith – are the same things that characterize the people who live here.
Come discover an incredible and impactful life, and the people and places that paved the way.