Military school, others look at Ambassador University

This article was written by The Journal's assistant editor for the Sept. 17 issue of The Gilmer Mirror, Gilmer, Texas. Mr. Overton is also editor of the Mirror.

By Mac Overton

BIG SANDY­The now-closed campus of Ambassador University is being considered as a site for a new military institute in the Old South tradition.

Mike Guthrie, a 1977 graduate of Virginia Military Institute who now lives in Alabama, said Sept. 15 that the Ambassador campus is one of the "top two" sites being considered for a new all-male military college.

Mr. Guthrie, of Madison, Ala., is the leader in a move to establish the new, private college, which will be called Southern Military Institute. He chairs an exploratory committee that recently went public with plans to consider opening an alternative to The Citadel, Charleston, S.C., and Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Lexington, Va.

He said he has been "inundated" with calls from people willing to provide financial help for the venture.

The plan to establish a new military college comes in the wake of rulings by federal courts that have forced The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute to enroll women.

He said that the new institute would be able to remain all male by operating as a private college. The Citadel and VMI are both public.

According to an article in the Aug. 29 edition of the Mobile (Ala.) Register: "Along with providing a college education and military training, it would be a place to sing 'Dixie,' display the Confederate flag and observe Confederate Memorial Day. It would even offer geographical affirmative action in admissions.

" 'All other factors being equal, the preference would go to the student from the Old South,' " Mr. Guthrie said.

"We have spoken with [Ambassador representatives]," Mr. Guthrie said. "We have their information and think it would be suitable for our purposes. A drawback is that it's too far west."

He said the campus, which closed in August, is in "fairly good condition."

However, he said that "we're trying to restore the 1830s tradition that a citizen soldier should have a firm foundation in engineering and science. Ambassador was primarily a liberal-arts school and lacked those facilities."

He said advantages of the Big Sandy facility are the acreage for training and the airstrip.

"Right now it's in the top two we're considering," he said.

Among other sites being considered are Virginia, a site near Atlanta, Ga., and South Carolina.

"The Citadel crowd are really pulling for that [the South Carolina site]," he said.

One other location being considered is a closed college, Mr. Guthrie said. The others are currently operating.

"Our fallback position is to build an entirely new facility in northern Alabama," he added, "but that would be much more expensive."

Dormitory facilities are another problem, not only for Ambassador, but the other campuses being considered as well.

"The heart of The Citadel, VMI and West Point was barracks life. These places are too plush for us. But if someone pushes plush on us, I guess we'll take it," he laughed.

Among plans are for the new institute to bring back equestrian training, which would be possible at Ambassador because of the horse stables there.

He would also like to see flying incorporated into the curriculum, with glider training built around a soaring club.

Ambassador has an airstrip suitable for that purpose.

The purchase of Ambassador is "not a done deal," Mr. Guthrie emphasized, but "it is a fair probability."

He said the chance to buy a campus at a discount price would mean Southern Military Institute could open as early as 1999 and for much less than the $100 million he initially projected would be necessary.

"It's a deal that would be hard to refuse," he said.

He said he thinks his planning board could raise $30 million by the end of the year. He said he has already been promised millions in financing.

Although East Texas was initially considered "too far west" for an institute in the Southern tradition, Mr. Guthrie said he knows Texas Aggies who told him that a military institute here "would be welcomed with open arms."

He said that he has also been told that the people of East Texas are "sympathetic to the Old South."

He said he and other VMI graduates had complaints against that institution beyond the acceptance of women. He said VMI has withdrawn the Confederate flag as a school symbol, banned the singing of "Dixie," no longer observes Confederate Memorial Day and deemphasized observance of the New Market Battle of the Civil War, where VMI cadets fought and died.

Mr. Guthrie said males of all races will be welcome at Southern Military Institute.

One of the key backers of the proposed school is the League of the South, which the Mobile Register called a pro-South group that champions Old South ways and favors states' rights, including the right of secession.

Bill Vaughan of Grubb & Ellis, the brokerage firm that is handling the sale of Ambassador, said the marketing of the campus is "proceeding very well, with a number of different parties interested."

He would not confirm or deny that planners for Southern Military Institute are interested in the facility.

"We initially thought we might interest a Fortune 500 company in purchasing the property," he said, "but interest has been very limited from that sector."

He said there has been a "high interest" in continued use of the facility as an educational institution from colleges and universities.

"Most are interested in creating a school or university," he said.

He said an appraiser determined that replacement cost for the campus, which includes 2,300 acres, classroom buildings, a dining hall and field house, dormitories and homes, is "in excess of $60 million. It will sell for less than that, but how much less we don't know. We don't know whether it will bring a half or a third of what the replacement cost would be."

Mr. Vaughan said the campus's owner, the Pasadena, Calif.-based Worldwide Church of God, "is very interested in selling."

Mr. Vaughan said that, because of "winding down" operations at the university, Grubb & Ellis had only been able to actively market the campus for a month and a half to two months. Mr. Vaughan mailed out 5,000 brochures on the property.

"I'm real pleased with the level of interest shown in that time," he said. "We've had several showings already, some of them with decision makers flying in to check it out."

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