A world-renowned fighting force and a small Vermont Catholic liberal arts college might seem at first to have little in common, but Marine General Joseph Dunford '77 proudly and fondly identifies with both.
The Defense Department announced Thursday that President Obama is nominating Dunford – currently the commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan -- to lead the Marine Corps as commandant. If confirmed by the Senate Dunford would succeed retiring General James F. Amos as the Marine Corps' top officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dunford maintains close connections to Saint Michael's College and has attended his last several five-year reunions for the Class of 1977, said Patrick Gallivan, the college's Vice President for Institutional Advancement.
In 2011, Dunford told a reporter in a story for a Saint Michael's College publication about how he became interested in the Marines. "I always planned to serve in the military but never intended to make it a career," he said. Dunford learned about Saint Michael's while a senior at Boston College High School, and arrived as a freshman having never even seen campus. Saint Michael's proved to be ideal preparation for a future Marine general, he said.
"A Catholic liberal arts education was a superb foundation for my career," Dunford said. "Critical thinking and reading skills have been invaluable. It prepared me to properly frame complex issues and challenges. Years of Catholic education also influenced me to seek opportunities to serve others – a critical aspect of leadership."
The son of a Marine veteran who had a 40-year career with Boston Police, he surprised his family by picking Saint Michael's based on a great talk he had with an admission recruiter. Dunford, who considered law enforcement and law school as career possibilities along with the Marines, figured if he joined the military after college it would be just two years and out, "but I guess I missed that exit," he joked in the interview.
Dan Tarpey Jr. '77, Dunford's second cousin, is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and now dean of students at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Massachusetts. He remembers how he and Dunford came to college together the same day when Dan's father, Dan Tarpey Sr. '52, drove them up in the family station wagon.
While Tarpey and Dunford hadn't known each other well as children, they bonded on that drive up and spent time together as first-year students, he recalls. "We got interested in the Marines the same weekend in 1973 when a Marine recruiting team was on campus and we wandered over for some other reason and ended up talking to them," Tarpey remembers. "They weren't busy in that era, that's for sure, and one thing led to another."
The general, who also worked 30 to 35 hours a week at a grocery store while a student, remembers his Saint Michael's professors from the mid-1970s with admiration. Part of his freshman Methods and Methodology class was going around to Vermont radio stations reporting at Town Halls about democracy in action, which he says cemented his interest in political studies. Dunford earned advanced degrees in international relations at Georgetown and Tufts later in his Marine career, which began upon his commission following graduation and completion of Officer Candidate School. He steadily climbed the command ladder over the next three decades with postings all over the U.S. and the wider world. Dunford earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" for leading the 5th Marine Regiment into Iraq in the 2003 invasion.
Gallivan said that Dunford was awarded one of the college's highest awards, The Colonel Donald Cook Award, in 2007 during his class's 30th reunion.
At the time he and 1977 classmate Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for National Public Radio, made an informative presentation for alumni and the public on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "General Dunford is a man of great humility and a great friend of Saint Michael's. People like General Dunford make Saint Michael's proud," Gallivan said.
Gallivan explained that the Colonel Donald Cook Award is named for a Medal of Honor recipient from the Saint Michael's Class of 1956 who died as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in 1967 after three years of captivity, during which he heroically placed his comrades' interests ahead of his own. Through the Cook award, the college's Alumni Association recognizes alumni who "unselfishly give of themselves in service to others." A U.S. Navy warship is named for Marine Col. Cook.
Gen. Dunford told the college in 2011 the most challenging part of his career is the extended family separations from his wife, Ellyn and his three now-grown children, "but fortunately, my family also believes in what I do and have willingly made the sacrifice."
"My advice to today's students is to be open-minded when pondering life and future career, but in the tradition of Saint Michael's, seek to make a contribution that's greater than yourself," he said.