Sullivan Flashback: Robert Gates

Robert Gates is a household name for most Americans, given his tenures as United States Secretary of Defense and as head of the CIA. Most people don’t know, however, that his political career has been interspersed with work in academia. He spent most of the nineties as a lecturer—at such storied colleges as Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and his own alma mater, the College of William and Mary. He even served for a time as president of Texas A&M University, just before returning to government when he was appointed to the cabinet by President George W. Bush.

Gates would go on to serve under both the Bush and Obama administrations before retiring in 2011. He is the only Secretary of Defense ever to serve under presidents of different parties, owing to the wide bipartisan respect he cultivated in Washington. His nomination to the post was confirmed by the Senate 95-2.

Upon Gates’ retirement, President Obama bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That medal is the highest award that can be received by a civilian in the United States. The first major award Gates won, however, may have been a sign of the career to come. When he graduated from William and Mary in 1965, Gates received the Sullivan Award.

President Barack Obama presents Gates with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Pentagon in 2011

What’s more, this storied Sullivan alum is now back where it all began, serving as chancellor of William and Mary, where he has said he gained “a calling to serve—a sense of duty to community and country that this college has sought to instill in each generation of students for more than 300 years.”

As an undergraduate, Gates was an active member of Alpha Phi Omega, among the most well-known college service organizations, where he worked to promote service-based leadership and community development. He even led the chapter during his senior year.

Gates made the most of his college years, mixing his service work with work as a dorm manager and an orientation aide. He also managed the William & Mary Review, a literary magazine.

Gates awards the Secretary of Defense Medal
for Outstanding Public Service to First Lady Laura Bush in 2009

While his return to William and Mary has lent a satisfying symmetry to his career, the college has never been far from Gates’ heart—he has returned for commencement speeches and other appearances over the years, served as a trustee, and been active in the alumni association. The college has even recognized his work with both an honorary doctorate and the Alumni Medallion, the alumni association’s highest honor.

At age 73, and with such a long and varied career already behind him (in addition to his academic and government work, he’s been president of the Boy Scouts of America and written three books), retirement might seem like the next logical step for Gates. His drive to serve his country, his college, and his community, however, points toward the possibility of a long road yet to go for this dedicated servant leader.

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