John Warley of Beaufort thought he knew The Citadel very well.
He’s not an outsider, casting stones like it seems everyone else does over the walls of South Carolina’s 175-year-old military college in Charleston.
He wears the ring from the class of 1967.
And as a writer, former practicing attorney, and classmate and close friend of the late Pat Conroy, Warley has for 50 years witnessed all the warts that have dominated the public’s view of a place he never thought he’d consider beloved, but does.
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Racial integration, the long battle to keep women out of the corps of cadets, followed by the challenge of assimilating women into the corps, seemed to dominate Citadel headlines for decades. Then there was the discovery of long-term sexual abuse of young campers by one of the college’s most decorated former students. And always flareups of hazing like that depicted in Conroy’s novel, “Lords of Discipline.”
“We were battered from pillar to post with all this publicity that was not being countered effectively by the school,” Warley said.
All those warts and more are in Warley’s new book: “Stand Forever, Yielding Never: The Citadel in the 21st Century,” from Evening Post Books in Charleston.
But the narrative of the book is much larger. It brings understanding to a school that often feels misunderstood and underappreciated. I wrote once about one of those misunderstandings, saying The Citadel was right to tell an admitted student that an exception would not be made for her to wear a hijab, or headcover different from the corps. She requested the exception in keeping with her faith. But The Citadel is not about her faith; it’s about creating a corps.
Warley will discuss his new book with Scott Graber, a fellow member of the class of 1967, at 3 p.m. Sundayin Building 12 at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort. The event is sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center.
Warley said he learned something significant that he never knew about The Citadel in researching his 336-page book.
He learned how close the college came to collapse — and it wasn’t from the highly publicized controversies.
It was from a perfect storm that was brewing about the time he graduated.
The Vietnam War made the military — and military schools — unpopular. Enrollment plummeted in the 1970s, with 400 to 500 empty beds in a corps of 2,000, he said.
At the same time, state support for higher education started shrinking.
“And there was a lack of any significant endowment to carry us through,” Warley said.
“I had no idea the school was walking on the financial edge there for a while.”
But as his class held its 50th reunion, and the book debuted at Corps Day Weekend this spring, Warley sees brighter days.
He said President George M. Seignious — from the heralded class of 1942 that produced U.S. Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, Gov. John C. West and Alvah Chapman — turned around the enrollment problem in the late 1970s.
He said the endowment is no longer anemic.
And he credits President John S. Grinalds, who arrived in 1997, a year after the first female was admitted, with setting the stage for the successes of President John W. Rosa Jr., who is retiring and will participate in his final commencement exercises this weekend.
In this storyline, Warley finds The Citadel sticking to a consistent message and branding: That it produces leaders trained for a career in today’s economy, and they graduate highly sought by employers and graduate schools.
“If you had told me as a cadet in 1967 that The Citadel would someday be offering a BS degree in nursing, I would have thought you had lost your mind,” Warley said.
He said much of the story is told in The Citadel being ranked as the No. 1 public college in the South for seven consecutive years in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of schools offering up to a master’s degree.
It also was told Friday when Sarah Zorn became The Citadel’s first female regimental commander. The New York Times came to town to spread that story.
But more is told by the school sticking to, or returning to, its old values: honor, duty and respect. And not abandoning its Fourth Class System for freshmen. And by still making seniors pass a physical test to walk in graduation ceremonies.
“Structure is still a key component of the school, and many people want that structure,” Warley said.
The book resulted from a discussion among members of the class of 1967 on the night before Pat Conroy’s funeral in March 2016.
It is dedicated to Conroy’s memory and to the 10 “boys of ’67 who became men on the far side of the world and didn’t come home” from Vietnam.
The title comes from The Citadel alma mater.
And the book’s closing comes from words Warley wrote for the walls of the new Citadel War Memorial, “... the institution we loved could not be allowed to die. We had found in its structure, its rigors, its esprit de corps something essential to preserve.”
He said that “something” remains the central narrative of The Citadel. “That we’re going to prepare people in mind, body and spirit.”
David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale