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An Ordinary Life & an Extraordinary Experience

By Bernie Watts ‘71

This isn’t your usual story of a Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets alumnus, such as one who moved on to the military, rising through the ranks with many adventures and important assignments along the way.

It is not about a former cadet who entered the civilian world, climbing the corporate ladder and leading a company or companies to great success. In fact, many civilian Virginia Tech graduates go on to do wonderful and great things with the degrees they have earned from this prestigious university, as well.

It is also not about someone who leaves the Corps and becomes very active in some noteworthy cause. Having read in this magazine the many articles over the years about my cadet brothers, I’ve noted that these fascinating bios and achievements are very representative of what the Corps is all about and how the experience benefits and affects the lives of those who complete it.

This article, however, is about the majority of us alumni, the hundreds and thousands of us who went through the Corps, graduated from Virginia Tech, and went on to live productive and happy lives — albeit without the fanfare of some of our brothers.

My life has not been glamorous, but I am comfortable stepping into new territory. My name is Bernie Watts of the class of 1971 (though I actually graduated in the summer of ’71, my degree shows class of ’72). What I wish to share is what the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets has meant to me, how the Corps experience affected me many years ago as I went through my four years, what I learned about myself then, and how it has stayed with me ever since.

Bernie Watts, at center, with sons Ben, at left, and Jon.
Bernie Watts, at center, with sons Ben, at left, and Jon.

No, I didn’t rise to the general rank while in service, and I never became a CEO. But I have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express — a few times, actually! I did not choose to rise up the military rank or climb the corporate ladder. Money and achievements were never motivating factors in how I lived my life. My life has been, however, very comfortable and happy.

My cadet bio doesn’t read as interesting as some, but here is a brief: C Squadron member, F Troop “townie” senior year, Gregory Guard, color corporal, Eager Squad commander and Best in Corps, Distinguished Military cadet and graduate.

One of the highlights of my cadet life was the Gregory Guard precision drill team (probably second to Turn Day, though). At that time, the guard marched in various parades and performed pre-game and halftime drill shows at home football games.

The ultimate drill at football games was called Get Lost. If I recall correctly, the unit would march from one end zone to the middle of the field, where the only cadence was the sound of the rifle movements. The unit would split and then split again. Each member would then split in a different route with no rifle cadence and silence only. He would then march a designated number of steps. Each member would march alone in a pattern with individual members spread out over most of the playing field. Then, all of sudden, everyone would stop at exactly the same instant and snap an about face.

If it was spot on, it was an awesome thing to see and hear the reaction of the crowd. If anyone reading this has any film or photos of these shows, it would be cool if you could put it on YouTube or send it to the Corps.

The Watts’ family homeplace in Virginia.
The Watts’ family homeplace in Virginia.

After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, I deferred a year and earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering.

My only duty station was at Tooele Army Depot in Utah. I left the service after three years, worked for Norfolk Southern as a mechanical engineer for two years, and then worked 35 years as a safety engineer and consultant for several firms. I was also able to remain on the family farm in Virginia, my real love, throughout my entire career.

Having retired from the corporate world in 2011, I live and work on the farm with my wife, who is a gifted writer. We have reared two sons — one in grad school at Virginia Tech and the other a graduate of Liberty University. We care for one old dog, one spoiled Maltese dog (or, as my wife would say, “princess” not dog), one old cat, one kitten, 80 momma cows, 50 or so calves, and three money-making bulls.

I worked at one company for 25 years and became friends with one guy in particular. We traveled quite a bit together. One day, as we were off to visit a client, I noticed he had a shovel in his back seat. This was sometime in early spring.

I asked him why he had the shovel, and he said he had to bury his dad!

“What?” I asked. His dad had died some months before.

“Um, where is your dad?” I asked.

He replied, “In the trunk.”

I nearly fell out of the car.

He explained that his dad was cremated and his ashes had been riding in the trunk until the ground was thawed enough to be buried. This is the same guy who broke up with a girl in high school, and as I recall, put a dead pig’s head on top of the snowman in her front yard! It made the paper. Life is only as boring or exciting as we make it, and great friends are a must along the way.

An F-troop photo from 1971 includes, (standing from left) Bill Dunn, Watts, Cary Cone, and (kneeling) Charlie Webb.
An F-troop photo from 1971 includes, (standing from left) Bill Dunn, Watts, Cary Cone, and (kneeling) Charlie Webb.

The Corps taught me many things about myself, many that I am not sure that I would have ever found otherwise. Probably the most important was after going through the “rat system,” I can do most anything I set my mind to, no matter how hard it may seem. Up to that point in my life, I was never really challenged. Most of us who went through the way it was back then know how hard it was. Going out into the hall, just to go to the bathroom, meant mustering a great deal of courage to endure those “mean” upperclassmen — just to do what needed to be done.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always hated to be late — just ask my wife! Probably much of this trait came from the Corps and has stayed with me. If, as a freshman, you were late for growley calls, late for reporting to an upperclassman, etc., the Wrath of the World descended upon you, and you were surely never late again!

 The Corps taught me positive study habits that enabled me to earn my degrees. Many of us did not have to study in high school to make good grades, but when we got to college it was a different story. The Corps had help if you needed it, as well, as academics were always stressed. Evening hours meant it was time to hit the books, and that was what was expected.

The Corps taught me how to work as a team player. Again, as a freshman often times when one freshman failed at something (such as marching in formation), we were all punished, and we tried to help those who needed it. There were many more examples from the Corps that helped in the working world, where you are expected to work together to accomplish a goal and to keep your job!

As a side note, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Corps, the old saying “you’re never too old to learn or try something new” can be true. At my wife’s suggestion, I took up painting — as an artist. As a 70-year-old who never painted anything besides doing a paint-by-numbers set when I was 8, I was hesitant. An engineer’s mind usually doesn’t work like musicians’, artists’, singers’, etc. However, it’s been fun, and I’m told the paintings are not too bad! Can’t credit the Corps for this unless one considers shining shoes and brass as artistic, but I hated shining anything!

Throughout my life my priorities were and still are my faith in God, the love of my family, the jobs that have supported me and my family, and my love of the family farm. The Corps of Cadets and being in the military also instilled in me a life-long priority of love for our country and the freedoms we enjoy every day, and I have lived my life knowing and respecting these freedoms.

In closing, if I had to do it over again, I would certainly choose the Corps of Cadets and go through the rat system. It was time well spent, even though during those early weeks and months, I often wondered what I had gotten myself into and even pondered quitting. Seeing what is happening today with sports figures, politicians, and others disrespecting our country, our constitution, our flag, and our way of life really makes me very angry. Being a part of the Corps, what we were taught, and what we went through helped to make me proud to be an American, and I have tried to honor and respect this great nation ever since.

That’s about it. Thanks for reading this.

Go Hokies!

One of Watts' paintings shows a red barn and two cows in the snow.
In recent years, Watts has taken up painting as a hobby.