A Day Of Honor
Former Battlefield Head Honored As VMI Cadets Salute Civil War Heroes
By Jeff Mellott
NEW MARKET - Jim Geary likes to say that fate has shaped his life.
An off-handed comment on a Richmond street in 1958 led to his directorship of Virginia's Civil War centennial celebration. After that job ended seven years later, Geary, now 96, became the first director of what was to become the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.
On Sunday, the Virginia Military Institute, which administers the park, recognized Geary's 16 years of stewardship, from 1966 to 1982.
Also on Sunday, VMI officials ceremoniously introduced the institute's largest freshman class of about 500 cadets to the battlefield that holds an important link to the school's value system.
As director of the park, Geary, of Harrisonburg, supervised the building of the Hall of Valor Civil War Museum and opened the historic Bushong Farm House on the battlefield to the public in 1971.
The museum and farmhouse are among the improvements and restorations that help the Lexington military school highlight the role of VMI cadets during the May 15, 1864, battle of New Market, said park Executive Director Scott Harris.
Called up from the reserve during the battle, the cadets played a critical role in the final charge that drove federal troops from the field.
During the ceremony honoring Geary, VMI officials presented him with a replica of the framed photo portrait of him taken when he was park director. The museum portrait will be hung in the Hall of Valor's administration offices next to that of George R. Collins, who was the VMI alum that in 1964 bequeathed the money and land to his alma mater to start a park honoring the Civil War cadets.
Geary's honor, VMI officials said, was long overdue.
With a record freshman class, the annual cadet day at the battlefield seemed to be the appropriate time to laud Geary, they said.
Somehow, Geary seemed destined for the job.
Born in Pittsburgh and reared in Roanoke, Geary embarked on a newspaper career after high school.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Geary returned to civilian life and began reporting for The Associated Press. As the AP reporter covering the General Assembly in Richmond, Geary was present in 1958 when lawmakers formed the commission to organize the state's upcoming centennial celebration of the Civil War, from 1961 to 1965. The commission members planned to take applications for an executive director.
After calling in his story, Geary ran into one of the commission's members. In an off-handed comment, Geary said he probably was not qualified for the position of executive director.
The commission member considered the comment a statement of Geary's interest in the job. Geary was hired from among 12 applicants.
"That was pure fate," he said during an interview last week.
His statewide job led to an offer from VMI in 1965 to be the first director of a park to honor the cadets at the battle of New Market.
Geary accepted and started his new position on Jan. 1, 1966.
"It sounded like a creative job," Geary said of accepting the offer.
He worked out of an office on Congress Street in New Market. The park was formally dedicated in 1967 and the Hall of Valor opened three years later. Dedicated in May of 1970, the building opened to the public in July of that year.
With the approval of VMI, Geary developed museum interpretive themes of Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign, the four years of the Civil War across the country, and "valor," with the focus on the 1864 cadets' service at the battle of New Market.
"Jim has given us the standard to tell us what we need to do to interpret this place so future generations can realize George Collins' dream of a public monument to the service of the VMI cadets," said VMI's executive director of museums, Keith Gibson, as he introduced Geary from the Bushong Farm house porch.
Each year, the freshman cadets are taken to New Market and told about the cadets who charged across the battlefield there during the Civil War.
The ceremonies include a presentation of their uniform shoulder boards that are carried by foot by VMI seniors the more than 80 miles from Lexington. The hike re-creates the march the cadets made from VMI to New Market in 1864.
One of the cadets that made the march this year was third generation VMI student Ethan Price, 21, of Shenandoah.
On the way to New Market, the 20 marchers stopped Friday night at the Rockingham County Fire & Rescue station on Rock Street in Harrisonburg. Readying himself early Saturday morning for the start of the leg of the march to New Market, Price said the hike is tough at times but also enjoyable with his friends.
The historical significance of the march is not lost on Price.
"It's difficult to grasp exactly what they did and the conditions they did it in," Price said of the 1864 cadets.
The marchers, who walked the final three miles to the battlefield on Sunday morning, were led by Roy Funkhouser, government cadet adviser at VMI.
"It's a chance for these guys to suffer a little bit," Funkhouser said. "Hopefully, as they go forward and get hit with tough times, they will be able to look back on the walk and draw on this and think, ‘I've been through painful [situations] before.'"
After a tour of the battlefield and before they lined up in their sparkling white uniforms to make the same charge as the 1864 cadets did 146 years ago, the Class of 2014 took their cadet oath from VMI Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III.
Peay reminded the cadets standing at attention behind the Bushong Farm House of the values and standards that are part of VMI and why they were on the battlefield to take their oath.
New Market, Peay said, was the first battlefield test of VMI's military character. The cadets, he said, had met the challenge.
"The story of that momentous time and those cadets should always be in your memory," he said.
This article appeared in the Daily New Record on Monday, September 13, 2010