This month Norwich is hosting a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the nation’s ROTC program. While it is commonplace today to regard Captain Partridge as the “father” of the concept of ROTC and Norwich University as the “birthplace” of that concept, there is a more direct connection that has not been previously recognized. Cavalry instruction first offered at Norwich University in 1908. Under the direction of Captain Frank Tompkins, Professor of Military Science & Tactics and a superb horseman, the equestrian program improved markedly. Another very capable cavalry officer, Captain Ralph Parker, replaced Tompkins in 1913. Parker was highly regarded by Major General Leonard Wood, US Army Chief of Staff, 1910-1914.
General Wood, a leading figure of the military preparedness movement, was keenly interested in offering military training to college students in summer camps. Wood was also very interested in what was happening in the Norwich Corps of Cadets, which by 1914 was organized exclusively as a cavalry unit in the Vermont National Guard. Captain Parker demonstrated to General Wood, through the example of Norwich cadets, the feasibility of a program of effective military training for college students and that such training could contribute significantly to national defense.
In a commencement speech at Norwich University in the spring of 1915, General Wood acknowledged the “excellent” quality of the work of the military department at the school and indicated his wish that a “similar course of instruction was in force in every High School and College in the Country.” Wood’s strong interest in Norwich led him to accept membership on its Board of Trustees in 1916, an affiliation he maintained until his death in 1928.
In 1916, the wish that General Wood expressed the previous year was realized with the creation of the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Norwich University proved to be a critical testing ground for Wood’s thinking about military training for college students. A letter written in 1938 by then Colonel Ralph M. Parker to Colonel Frank Tomkins confirms this. Parker observed to his old comrade in arms: “We would not have ROTC today if I had not demonstrated to General Wood the practicability of real military training and its real value to National Defense. Then, too, if I had not had General Wood with his wonderful broad-minded attitude toward civilian training, I would not have been heeded in the least. There was no other General officer in the Army that would have lent a sympathetic ear to my proposals.”
Contributed by Gary Lord, first published on the Norwich Record website. The documents quoted here as evidence of the Norwich-ROTC connection can be accessed in the Norwich University Archives.