By Tina Alvey
For much of its 160-year history, Lewisburg’s Greenbrier Military School trained young men not just to serve their country but to lead.
The private secondary school for boys boasts such accomplished graduates as Homer A. Holt, who served as West Virginia’s 20th governor from 1937 to 1941, former U.S. Congressman Alan Mollohan and restaurant mogul Bob Evans.
A decade after the school closed its doors in 1972, only to have its campus transformed into the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, a group of GMS alumni got together for a picnic and started casting about for a way to leave a lasting legacy from the military school to the local community.
One of those grads, Beaman Cummings, class of 1963, noted that the “brick and mortar” component was accomplished with the construction of the medical school’s Roland P. Sharp Alumni Center, with a wing set aside for a GMS museum.
But many members of the GMS Alumni Association felt the artifacts displayed in the museum, while providing an important historical record, were only one piece of the puzzle when it came to ensuring the essence of their school would continue.
“The core competency we learned at GMS was leadership,” Cummings pointed out. “The lessons taught there have held me in good stead for the rest of my life — leadership, duty, honor.”
It was out of those timeless lessons that the Greenbrier Leadership Institute was born.
“Integrity, service and character are the basis for this program,” said Cummings, who serves as the Institute’s executive director.
Formally established in its current guise in December 2009, the GLI started five years ago with a single leadership lecture that prompted then-Greenbrier County Superintendent of Schools John Curry to ask for the GMS alumni to give a similar presentation to his students.
In 2008, a group of students from Greenbrier East and Greenbrier West high schools were selected for the first GLI class, which held sessions in the fall, with a follow-up in the spring.
This year, instructors will conduct four sessions with the 40 to 45 high school juniors and seniors selected for the program. Beginning next fall, sophomores from each school will be given an opportunity to participate as well.
Students interested in the program must submit an application. Principals at East and West are also involved in the process, selecting students for the program based on their demonstrated leadership in their respective schools, Cummings said.
“We have to have the enthusiastic support of superintendents and principals for this program to succeed,” he said.
“The students have to be very motivated,” Cummings emphasized. “We build on that demonstrated leadership ability and give them our version of principle-based leadership, which helps them chart a positive direction and shows them how to get people to follow them.”
The first step in the GLI program is a leadership assessment, during which the individual student’s leadership style and skills are identified.
“We help the students learn what their skills are and how they can best interact with others, based on those skills,” Cummings said. “They learn how to flex their leadership style.”
In addition to the four sessions with instructors, the students are expected to participate in various school and community service projects throughout the year, with their progress monitored and encouraged by two local educators — Smoot Elementary School Principal Molly Judy and recently retired Associate Superintendent Charles Callison.
“They ‘ride herd’ on the students between sessions,” Cummings noted. “The students have to report in to either Molly or Charlie on the 15th of every month to demonstrate they’re working on the leadership project.”
The students form up in groups of four to six, Cummings explained, and decide on a project for the year. Examples of projects these future leaders have chosen include determining and sharing strategies to help younger students deflect negative peer pressure, promoting awareness of bullying in their schools and helping older residents in the community with yard work and minor home repairs.
“These projects allow the students to take the leadership skills they are learning and use them in a practical and positive way,” Cummings said. “One success leads to another.”
Another component of the GLI is the requirement that each participating student must read a biography of a principle-based leader, which further reinforces the lessons learned in the program.
Cummings estimates that more than 200 Greenbrier East and Greenbrier West students have now participated in the GLI and anticipates even more will soon join that number, as the Institute expands its reach into two more West Virginia counties — Barbour and another county to be identified later. Those two counties will be added in the fall of 2013, Cummings said.
The program’s reach also extends beyond the student population, with GLI’s adult leaders program for teachers and school staff, including guidance counselors. Those periodic training sessions generally attract around 150 participants, Cummings noted.
As with any nonprofit, GLI’s volunteers focus part of their effort on fundraising, under the umbrella of the GMS Alumni Association, the Institute’s parent organization.
“The Alumni Association has contributed quite a bit,” Cummings acknowledged, adding that alumnus Jim Justice, owner of the nearby Greenbrier resort, issued a $75,000 challenge to his fellow GMS alumni. That challenge was met and exceeded — to the tune of $80,000 — in time for this past summer’s annual alumni reunion.
The GLI is also actively applying for grant funds, with a particular emphasis on grantors with connections to Greenbrier County, like the Hollowell Foundation and the Daywood Foundation, which also has a special link to Barbour County.
The ultimate goal, Cummings said, is to accumulate sufficient funds for an endowment that would finance the program in perpetuity.
Fundraising isn’t the only area the GLI’s leaders are pursuing, as Cummings explained the ultimate ambition is for the Institute to spread across the state, with a “youthful individual enthusiastic about the program” leading the expansion.
“Our vision is to be able to get somebody to take over from us (the alumni) and carry it on into the future,” Cummings said, pointing out that since GMS closed in 1972, the school’s aging alumni will not be replenished by a new crop of grads.
“Our primary goal is to make GLI self-sustaining and provide a legacy of leadership for Greenbrier Military School into the future,” Cummings stressed. “It is a labor of love and our gift to the youth of Greenbrier County, West Virginia and beyond.”
For more information about the Greenbrier Leadership Institute, visit gmsaa.org online. Organizers expect to launch an interactive website in 2013.
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