West Point Society of North Florida
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History of the Founders Day Dinner

On 16 March 1802, Thomas Jefferson signed the document that founded the United States Military Academy. It read, “that the said corps, when so organized, shall be stationed at west point in the state of New York and shall constitute a military academy.” In March of each year, USMA personnel speak at Founders Day gatherings organized by West Point Societies throughout the United States and the world.1

Spring is the season for graduates and other members of the extended West Point Community to gather here and abroad for formal celebrations of the 16 March 1802 establishment of the Corps of Engineers at West Point that would “constitute a military academy.” These celebrations, known as Founders Day Dinners (although some are now lunch or brunch as well), are an early 20th Century phenomenon, probably in imitation of the extended celebration of the Centennial of the Academy in 1902. The West Point Society of New York claims the first, but some graduates in the Philippines may have held a less formal observance earlier. Formal dinners, however, have a long tradition among graduates and cadets, the most documented examples being the 19th Century reunions and the dinners held in New York City by rising second classmen at the conclusion of their three-month summer leave following successful completion of Yearling year. Many may recall that the arrival of the new second class at West Point, en masse, was a raucous event that led to the observation that “it sounds like the cows coming home”—and the Cadet slang for second classmen was born.

In those days, the cheer “Furlough, furlough” rang through the Yearling class all spring, and a solemn “Furlough photograph” was de rigor upon their return. Often posed on the steps to the main entrance of Cullum Hall, it revealed a wide spectrum of acceptable civilian attire, although always a proper suit and tie, often with a vest as well. Headgear also was varied: derbies, straw boaters, fedoras, even the occasional top hat. In keeping with the reality that it would be two years before these young men again would depart their Rockbound Highland Home, some wore their hats upside down—perhaps in imitation of sailor hats—while still others bit chunks from the brims of their boaters or shredded the brims of their Panamas. The next time they left they would be in uniform anyway.

Nevertheless, they did have a memorable “last supper” in New York City the prior evening, with engraved menus, fine wines, cognac and cigars. One enterprising class of entering Plebes even attempted a formal dinner in the City on the evening prior to their first reporting to the Academy. It was a modest success but apparently was not repeated. Formal dinners for the June Association of Graduates annual meetings, the forerunner of our current class reunions, were also quite formal affairs, as photographs in the Annual Reports show hundreds of graduates, in formal uniform or civilian formal wear, arrayed at long tables in the ballroom of Cullum Hall. The association also long considered raising funds for a larger memorial hall capable of seating over one thousand diners for various celebrations when Cullum Hall was deemed stretched to the limit of its capabilities.

Now, of course, over one hundred West Point Societies vie for the appearance of the Superintendent, Commandant, Dean or Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at their annual Founders Day event. Deputies and Department Heads also are in demand, while retired general officers and West Point Association of Graduates executives fill out the roster. The basics always are observed: a cocktail reception (often termed the Benny Havens hour); the singing of The Corps; a prayer; a meal with toasts to the nation, commander in chief, Army, West Point, the ladies, and our fallen comrades; short speeches by the Oldest Graduate Present and Youngest Graduate Present; a speech by the Guest of Honor; and the singing of the Alma Mater.

Variants on the theme include the formal posting and retirement of the colors; the playing of the national anthem; a table with a red rose, lemon, salt, and a turned down wine glass in memory of our fallen comrades; various forms of live entertainment; music for dancing; the cutting of a special cake adorned with the West Point crest and/or a scene from cadet life; displays of West Point books, photos, cadet uniforms and other memorabilia; the screening of old movies about West Point, the latest DVD from Admissions or a compilation of related YouTube streaming videos; decorations that replicate the old clock towers; silent or live auctions of West Point souvenirs and donated items; sales of souvenir items; door prizes; the presence of parents and cadet candidates; the announcement of the achievement of Distinguished Society status for the past year; and other special activities.

Founders Day Dinners have been held in palaces in Kuwait City and Baghdad; in Moscow, Beijing, and Paris; in Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, the Benelux countries, and Germany; and on military installations and in country clubs, hotels, and restaurants. At times in our history, the menu may have been limited to a canteen cup of C Ration coffee or a Meal Ready to Eat and a quick prayer. In all events, the purpose of the gathering is to reaffirm the traditional values of Duty, Honor, Country and a life of service and sacrifice inherent in choosing “the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”

“Accomplish the mission and take care of your Soldiers.”

“They are here in ghostly assemblage.”

“In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.”

“May it be said, well done; be thou at peace.”

Amen. Two hundred and [eleven] years and still going strong. Beat Navy!2

2 J. Phoenix, Esq.: "Gray Matter" 11 MAR 2010