When I was 13 years old my brother gave me The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Years later my oldest son became interested in the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien. The books involve a tale of the One Ring that controls the others.
Years later I was struck at the similarities and differences between the One Ring and The Ring the senior cadets at The Citadel receive their senior year. The One Ring is one of power over people. The Citadel ring that a graduate wears is also one of power. The Citadel ring’s strength is in the power of friendship forged through the tough training the cadets endure over their four years. The power of The Citadel ring goes beyond the graduates and in many cases influences the families of the one who wears the ring.
One of the most moving accounts of the bond forged by the graduates who wear the ring is told by Pat Conroy. He told this story in his book, My Losing Season, and he also told the story in his commencement address in 2001. I can’t read the story without tears welling up in my eyes. Talk to many graduates and their families and they can tell you their own story of the Ring. In her book In the Company of Men, Nancy Mace details her father’s story of recovering his lost ring in the swampy fields of Vietnam.
Two weeks from now the Class of 2013 will receive their rings. It is a huge weekend for seniors and their families. My son used to say that the ring, and what it symbolizes, is more important to him than his diploma. Everyone who graduates from a college or university gets a diploma. Not everyone can earn the right to wear The Citadel Ring.
Over the past five years I have had the privilege to see what the power of this ring can do. As the chair of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group for a few years I had the honor of witnessing the kindness of the members of the Atlanta Citadel Club when they heard a cadet was in need. One had trouble meeting the out-of-state tuition and was helped by a graduate. Another family had a crisis and weren’t sure they could get their cadet home, the alumni offered to pay for a flight. If a knob needed a ride back to campus from Georgia I just posted the need and within minutes offers to help would pour in.
This giving nature also applies to the families of the cadets. A family suffered the death of a grandparent. Their cadet couldn’t afford to travel to the funeral. A ticket arrived in the mail paid for by another family who heard of their need. When a cadet or graduate is deployed the moral support for the family of the soldier pours in.
Each year cadets and graduates are sent overseas to war. When one Citadel Mom learned that current cadets were going to war she founded The Citadel Heroes Project. Volunteers donate items and cards that are sent to the deployed cadets and graduates a few times a year. It is a huge effort that means so much to the recipients.
A young graduate died just months after graduation and before he reported to his first duty station. The roommate of the deceased was left behind to tie up the loose ends. A few of us attended the memorial service in Summerall Chapel. I was asked to read a poem during the service on behalf of the Citadel Family Association. A few of us moms learned it was difficult for the surviving roommate to go to the mail box each day and see mail to his deceased classmate/roommate/good friend. The Citadel Moms each took a week and sent baked goods gift cards for coffee shops and food. For eight weeks the surviving roommate went to his mailbox to find these gifts of love and support from his Citadel Moms.
Recently it was brought to the attention of a group of alumni that a few seniors, due to a number of circumstances, couldn’t afford to pay off the balance on their rings. Within a matter of hours alumni of all types, young and old, male and female, came together to donate the money needed to pay off the rings for these deserving seniors. When parents of current cadets and graduates heard of this effort, they too wanted to help. It was an amazing show of support by the members of The Citadel family. On October 12 the qualified cadets will receive their rings with the rest of their class.
Wearing the ring is something I will never experience. It was my son and his classmates that proved they were worthy of the honor of joining the Long Gray Line of graduates. They are family, not just classmates. I can tell you being a family member of the person who wears the ring makes you part of their extended Citadel family.
Pat Conroy used the sentence “I wear the ring.” in The Lords of Discipline to summarize the importance of his time at The Citadel and the bond he shares with others who wear the ring. The cadets who went through the rigors of the 4th Class System understand that sentence differently than any one else who reads it.
The parents and family members of the cadets and graduates can only get glimpses of what it means.