Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. (’63), known as a soldier’s soldier and who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Reagan administration during a 46-year military career, passed away at his home in North Oaks, Minnisota, on August 18. Gen. Vessey was featured in the spring 2015 issue of University of Maryland University College’s Achiever magazine as a “History Maker,” arguably UMUC’s most accomplished alumnus. In a letter to the UMUC community (see below), President Javier Miyares honored Gen. Vessey’s inspirational life as an enlisted man who misrepresented his age in order to fight in World War II and rose to become the military’s highest ranking military officer.
It is with a profound sense of loss that I write to inform you that Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. (U.S. Army, Ret.)—a 1963 graduate of UMUC, the first chair of our Board of Visitors, and the 10th chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—passed away last night at his home in North Oaks, Minnesota. He was 94.
Gen. Vessey’s career and service to our country are legendary. He purposely misrepresented his age in order to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard at 16 years old and received a battlefield commission in World War II. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in military science from UMUC—then still a branch of what is now University of Maryland, College Park—as a 41-year-old lieutenant colonel, and graduated as a colonel in 1970 from Army Helicopter School, its oldest student by 15 years.
In 1976, he achieved the rank of general, and in 1982 became the country’s highest ranking military officer when President Ronald Reagan appointed him chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—the rarest of honors for one who began his career as an enlisted man. When he retired in 1985, after 46 years of service, he ranked as the longest serving member of the U.S. Army.
Gen. Vessey continued his legacy of service well into retirement, returning to Vietnam repeatedly as a special envoy of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, to investigate the fates of American servicemembers who were listed as missing in action or prisoners of war. His negotiations with Hanoi in 1988 led to Pentagon teams being granted permission to search in country, retrieving the remains of some 900 military personnel over the space of two decades.
A lifelong advocate of education, Gen. Vessey said that he tried to pattern his own life after a lecture—entitled “The Five Evidences of an Education,” by the American philosopher, diplomat, and educator Nicholas Murray Butler—that he first heard discussed in a UMUC classroom. The lecture praised the correct use of language, refined and gentle dealings with fellow human beings, the power and habit of reflection, the power to grow, and the power to act with efficiency and effectiveness.
Today, the General John W. Vessey Jr. Scholarship Fund awards scholarships to degree-seeking students of UMUC’s Undergraduate School, with preference given to Purple Heart recipients, active duty military personnel and members of their immediate families, military personnel who are currently transitioning to civilian life, and students with demonstrated financial need.
Gen. Vessey will long be remembered as UMUC’s most distinguished alumnus, and rightfully so. His life of service and commitment to the men and women who wear the uniform of our country stand as a reminder of the importance of our mission, of the power of education to change lives, and as an inspiration to women and men everywhere who aspire to lead with integrity, courage, and grace. He will be deeply missed.
Javier Miyares, President
University of Maryland University College