Two Worlds in One Small Town

Washington and Lee students and VMI cadets may have more in common than they think


Photo by Mikah Holcomb, ‘21.

Mimi Sherrill

On a typical Friday night, Ted Gottwald was scurrying back to his room in the Virginia Military Institute barracks to make his 10 p.m. curfew. Meanwhile, his friends from high school who attended Washington and Lee University had just begun their trek to the fraternity houses in Davidson Park, Busch Lights in hand.

Against the gray and utilitarian style buildings on VMI’s campus, the liveliness and energy at Washington and Lee stands in stark contrast. 

But alumni, local employees and even current students believe that the two groups of students could have more in common than they think.

Gottwald graduated from VMI in 2014, with a plethora of stories to tell from his time within the bleak walls of the military institute. Gottwald said the first week of college was the most difficult thing he had ever experienced.

“From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you’re just being screamed at the whole time,” Gottwald said. “It’s crazy.”

Gottwald said he didn’t even speak to his three roommates the entire first week because they were so scared. They shared the same room, but didn’t speak a word to each other, he said.

With friends at Washington and Lee, Gottwald said there were a handful of times he went out to Windfall Hill for parties. He strategically planned when to attend Washington and Lee parties, choosing holidays like Halloween so he could blend in with the crowd, he said. 

Other nights, Gottwald was not so lucky.

“I think they could tell right away that we were from VMI,” Gottwald said. “The second I walked into a room without my W&L friend, people would just stare at me and say, ‘What the hell is this guy doing here?’”

Some Washington and Lee students may have given Gottwald mixed responses when he arrived at parties, but his high school friends secured him an honorary spot in their Washington and Lee Kappa Alpha pledge class. 

Gottwald said he received a letter after graduation informing him that he had been selected to join the fraternity.

“It’s such a funny dynamic,” Gottwald said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of college kids. If they actually spent time together, they would get along.”

Cole Cathcart, a third classman at VMI, said he never expected to attend college in his hometown of Lexington, VA.

Cathcart was set on attending the University of Virginia until he stayed overnight in the barracks during a VMI recruitment event, he said. He said the camaraderie among cadets was enough to convince him to change his mind about attending UVA.

“A big part of VMI is the ratline, and I think this serves as a great equalizer,” Cathcart said. “The shared suffering at VMI establishes common ground.”

Cathcart said he went out to a band party in Red Square earlier this year. Although Cathcart’s best friend attends Washington and Lee, he still feels the need to wear civilian clothing and avoid mentioning that he goes to VMI.

“There are a couple guys in my class who will roll up in their VMI uniform by themselves. I admire their confidence, but it couldn’t be me. I’m just there for the party,” Cathcart said.

Cathcart said his perspective as a cadet has only increased his respect for Washington and Lee. He said he admires W&L’s commitment to scholastic excellence and appreciates how both schools have grown together over time.

Cathcart said he hopes both groups of students can develop a relationship in the future. He said VMI cadets have tightly packed schedules, but they could manage to find time for a Washington and Lee party.

“There isn’t much contention between the schools, but we really only cohabitate at the moment,” Cathcart said.

When Lindsay White, ’23 began the soccer recruitment process, she never imagined she would end up in the same college town as her twin brother Leo.

White said her brother committed to play soccer at VMI his sophomore year of high school, but she didn’t consider Washington and Lee until she started looking for a Division III school that would let her balance her social, academic and extracurricular life.

White said she looked at every school on the East Coast with a competitive soccer program and impressive academics, except for Washington and Lee.

When White finally gave in to her parents’ encouragement to visit Washington and Lee, she said she knew it was the place for her.

“I fell so in love with W&L that being close to my brother didn’t matter,” White said.

Although White’s twin, Leo, arrived in Lexington at the same time, he experienced a brutal greeting from fellow cadets during the first week of school. White said her brother was carrying a 40-pound backpack across the Maury River while she was day-drinking at her first Pole House party.

“At the end of Hell Week, I got a text from my brother that said ‘This has been the hardest week of my life. I love you guys and I just finished Hell Week,’” White said.

White said the honor system at VMI is very similar to Washington and Lee’s honor system, but the social culture is completely different. However, she said it makes her sad to hear Washington and Lee students speak poorly of the cadets.

“They’re humans just like us, and they want to have a good time,” Lindsay White said. “I know my brother would be friends with everyone at W&L if he went here. He’s a normal kid.”

Kasey Potter, the general manager of Pure Eats, has been in Lexington for the past nine years. The restaurant’s cheeseburgers and sugary donuts attract college students from both schools.

Potter said Pure Eats is the first stop for VMI cadets when they’re released from post and hungry for a meal off campus. Potter said she lets them use the Pure Eats phone to call their families.

“I have a soft spot for the VMI cadets,” said Potter. “I’ve never been in the ratline. I have no idea what it’s like and how hard that is.”

Potter says she loves to see VMI cadets and Washington and Lee students invite each other to formals and the Ring Figure Ball, attend parties together on Windfall Hill and exchange numbers on the Pure Eats porch. Potter thinks both groups of students mesh well together and have more in common than they realize.

“They’re college students and they’re facing the same struggles as you,” Potter said. “The cadets like to have a good time too.”