By Conor Evans
Evans is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Class of 2002. He is now a construction executive in Morristown, New Jersey.
I’ve had Robert E. Lee’s “Definition of a Gentleman” in a frame with other pictures alongside hanging in my office since 2004. A nice quote/sentiment that most anyone would agree if not for opposition to the author. But, two weeks ago it dawned on me as I was sitting in my office with one of my direct reports, a woman of color, that she may have a different perspective. I had never realized it before — it is a good quote, and Lee never offended me. And so, I wasn’t thinking. I’m a kind, thoughtful man. Within the confines of my worldly construct. Whenever possible without sacrificing my identity, I want to be a kind, thoughtful man in all constructs — I simply am limited to mine.
So, I asked her “oh gosh. I just realized that was there. Had you noticed that before?” She said she had. And that it had made her uneasy, especially her first few months working for me as she had not yet learned Conor’s character. But, in time, as she got to know my heart, she didn’t allow it to bother her because the man (Lee) didn’t mean to me what he meant to her. I was impressed with her reaction and thoughtfulness. I removed the quote. Why? Because it doesn’t define me. It is a small part of my belief system akin to how Stonewall’s statue is a very small part of VMI’s past. I removed it because it could be replaced easily with equally as important, if not more important, quotes and sentiments that are universally accepted, much like the vast array of options available to replace Stonewall’s statue. She wasn’t asking me to remove it and doing so didn’t compromise my identify or character. Keeping it would have.
Ultimately, I replaced it because — as a leader — I want to care for all I’ve been entrusted to lead, not just the ones sharing my same construct of Lee’s quote. Stonewall’s statue is not VMI’s identity. Especially considering when and why it was erected (1912 in response to the Lost Cause movement; a cause to restore damaged identities of those who did not win the war). I choose the entirety of Lee’s code as being about how one holds power over others, including the employer over the employed. I removed it because following the code required doing so; action was more important than display. Leaders and organizations are judged by their actions. I trust VMI will choose well.
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