This blog was originally posted on June 12, 2015
As we all know, George C. Marshall is a man of many parts: soldier and statesman; father and husband; diplomat. One of the less well known facts about this fascinating individual, however, is that he was also part of a fraternity, a member of the Kappa Alpha Order (KA). KA was founded at the then Washington College (now Washington and Lee), in Lexington, Virginia in 1865. Marshall, of course, is a 1901 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) also located in Lexington and whose post abuts the campus of Washington and Lee. Today, fraternities play no part in VMI life and the Corps of Cadets fulfills the role played by a fraternity for the men and women at VMI. At the time of Marshall’s graduation however, VMI still retained fraternal organizations and appropriate candidates for membership were considered by a panel of VMI professors, themselves KA members. Marshall approached his membership of this organization in the same serious fashion he approached everything and remained involved an interested in KA until his death in 1959. The archival collections held at the George C. Marshal Foundation contain several files of correspondence between Marshall and innumerable KA chapters, many of which requested autographed photos from Marshall.
For Marshall, the appeal of KA most likely lay in its adherence to traditional values of loyalty and fidelity and which meshed with those he developed while at VMI. In March of 1948 Marshall, serving by then as Secretary of state, was honored with an award for distinguished achievement by the Washington DC area alumni chapter of KA. Appropriately the brief ceremony took place in Marshall’s State Department office. Marshal had, the year before received a jeweled KA pin but the necessities of Army life meant that he was unable to wear the adornment. On its receipt, however, he noted that he would soon be transitioning to civilian life and would have a better opportunity to display it then, indeed that the pin would be the first addition to his civilian wardrobe.
The linkages between Marshall and the Kappa Alpha Order do not end with Marshall’s death, however. As early as 1951 President Truman set in motion the process by which Marshall’s papers would be gathered and made accessible to future generations. Only with Marshall’s death in December of 1959 could serious thought be given to creating an apposite building in which to house these papers and also to serve as an apposite memorial to Marshall himself. Marshall’s overwhelming sense of modesty meant that efforts to achieve this while he still lived would have been inappropriate.
The site of VMI for the Marshall Library was wholly appropriate and the community of KA acted both to support the creation of this entity, financially, but also to house within its walls the official Kappa Alpha War Memorial. This would commemorate the sacrifice and service of KAs in two World Wars and Korea. Appropriately, Marshall himself served in both those global conflagrations and served as Secretary of State for Defense during the Korean War. This memorial (although currently not on display and undertaking conservation work) remains a part of the Foundation’s permanent exhibition.
The Marshall Foundation continues this association today with regular visits by KA alumni to the library and Museum. It means too that we are able to add another level of insight into the life and character of this complex man.