Ben Legare Jr.: Military man strikes balance as Citadel's liaison
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 6, 2005 edition of The Post and Courier in Charleston. It is reprinted with permission of The Post and Courier. Legare retired from The Citadel June 30, 2007.
By Daniel Conover
The Post and Courier
It was a long walk down from The Citadel's stands, around the field at Williams-Brice Stadium and up the stairs to the box where South Carolina State University's VIPs sat.
BEN W. LEGARE JR.
BORN: Aug. 14, 1938, in Charleston.
FAMILY: Wife, Susan Gough Legare; daughter, Kelly Legare Augenstein; son, Ben W. Legare III; son-in-law, Craig Augenstein; grandparents in Charleston were Mr. and Mrs. F.Y. Legare Sr. Three brothers-in-law and one nephew graduated from the Air Force Academy, son-in-law graduated from the Naval Academy, brother and cousin graduated from The Citadel and one nephew graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
EDUCATION: Attended total of 13 schools from grade school through high school in the USA, Germany, Iran, graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. Graduated from The Citadel in 1963, master's degree from Georgia State in 1975.
MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Army enlisted from 1956 to 1959, Presidential Honor Guard, Fort Myer, Va.; Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1963. From 1963 to 1965, 24th Infantry Division, Augsburg, Germany, as lieutenant; 1965 to 1966, platoon leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade; 1966, promoted to captain, reassigned to Military Assistance Advisory Command (MACV); 1966 to 1968, assignments at Fort Bragg, N.C., with Training Center and XVIII Airborne Corps; 1968 to 1969, second tour in Vietnam with MACV HQS Operations Division; 1970 to 1973, assignments with 3rd Infantry Division, Wurzburg, Germany, and promoted to major; 1973 to 1977, assignments as tactics and leadership instructor at Fort Benning, Ga.; 1977 to 1980, assignments with the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and promoted to lieutenant colonel; completed normal Army Military schools to include Airborne and Special Warfare Schools.
FAVORITE MOVIE ABOUT VIETNAM: "Platoon."
WHAT DO PEOPLE NOT UNDERSTAND ABOUT THE CITADEL? The high academic standards required to be accepted as a member of the Corps of Cadets and the quality education one receives as a cadet.
WHAT WAS YOUR BEST DAY AS A GOLFER? One spent with my wife or grandchildren.
So when a trim, middle-age white couple began to climb the stairs on the S.C. State side during halftime, people noticed. The man wore a sharply creased Citadel uniform and the crowd went silent as they passed. The schools had taken great care to keep their fans separate. What were these two doing?
Only when the couple reached the President's Box did retired Army Col. and S.C. State professor Samuel Stroman, a black man and war hero, step out and face retired Lt. Col. Ben W. Legare Jr., The Citadel's director of governmental affairs.
Legare saluted his former boss. Stroman returned it, then hugged Legare's wife, Susan. The S.C. State fans broke into spontaneous applause. An entire stadium exhaled.
Legare chokes up just a bit when he tells the story. Stroman is in poor health these days. Legare pauses, looks away, clears his throat. "Great guy," he says in summary, then moves on.
Which is one of the little things about Ben Legare: Yes, he's one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get military guys, all right-angles and pressed pockets. But just when you think you know what that means, he gives you a little something more.
In his professional mode, everything about Legare advertises his background: Lean and spare, with close-cropped gray hair and metal-rimmed glasses, he possesses a quality instantly recognizable as "military bearing." He walks as if gliding confidently across a parade field.
He is, on first impression, almost unrelentingly professional.
But that's just the first five minutes.
When Legare lets loose with a real smile, which he does frequently, the hard military shell cracks. Suddenly, he's a favorite uncle, a clubhouse wit, a regular guy.
"Ben has an incredible sense of humor, which masks an incredibly well-read, sensitive, worldly guy," said Charleston attorney David Popowski, who met Legare through the Charleston Rotary Club ( Legare is a former president.) and describes himself as the liberal counterpoint to his conservative friend. "He thinks geo-politically because he reads a lot about it. You might say he's a warrior who understands the tragedy of war."
Legare came by the military side honestly, following his father into the profession after a childhood spent knocking around Army posts from Germany to Tehran, attending school in everything from converted 2-1/2-ton Army trucks to international academies. After high school, he did a three-year tour as a high-gloss enlisted man in "The Old Guard," the elite ceremonial unit that provides honor guards to Arlington National Cemetery.
After that experience, Legare's knob year at The Citadel in 1959 was a breeze. He earned his ring in 1963, accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army and headed off to a staff job at an infantry battalion in Germany. The assignment eventually would put him under the direction of then-Maj. Stroman, a decorated World War II combat veteran who was serving as the battalion's executive officer.
"I never will forget all us cocky Citadel graduates and West Point graduates. He called us in and he said, 'I want you to know something. I'm new here and I want to get this straight right now. I don't want to be popular with any of you, but, by God, I'm gonna outwork you, and when we finish our relationship, let me assure you, you will respect me.'
"It didn't take us but about 60 days for us to realize that that man was good for every word he said. That man could help you or hurt you, but if he knew you were working hard, he was going to help you."
Thanks to Stroman, Legare resolved to become that kind of officer, more committed to doing things the "right" way than being popular. Which, come to think of it, is an unusual philosophy for a lobbyist and public relations guy.
He did 20 years in an Army uniform, including two tours of Vietnam that he doesn't like to talk about. Nor does his spartan office in Bond Hall tell his story. No pictures of himself with famous, powerful men, no framed citations for the Silver Star or the Bronze Star medals he received in Vietnam. Ask about the medals directly and he changes the subject. Others did more, he says.
The only clues to his personal experience in Vietnam emerge indirectly as the conversation ranges over other topics. While talking about his father, a high-ranking public affairs officer in Saigon while Legare was leading a rifle platoon in the bush, Legare tells a story about being hospitalized after a combat injury and how his father came to visit.
Later, Legare casually mentions that everything that happened to the unit in the movie "Platoon" (except for the in-house feuding) happened to his unit.
Vietnam would provide the bridge to his future career at The Citadel, but had his odds of promotion to colonel been better, Legare might have stayed on active duty. Instead, after more than 20 combined years as an officer and enlisted man, Legare returned to his alma mater in 1982 as the college's public relations officer.
He was in for a shock. The disciplined, fraternal culture he remembered from his student days had been replaced by an abrasive and sometimes abusive style of cadet leadership in which hazing was considered a tradition.
"When I came back here in 1982, I was appalled at a lot of the things I saw," he said. "I literally went to the library and looked at the yearbooks and laid out pictures. I began to see that, for example, when I went out for and made the Summerall Guards, ... the mission of the Summerall Guards was to march and do fancy stuff. That's all we did. When I got here in '82, to go out for the Summerall Guards, you ran five miles with a weapon like this (held out), you went back out here in the marsh and crawled through the marsh. Terrible. Just terrible."
Legare believes the war contributed to the change in two ways. First, the school took up the practice of reading aloud the news of recent alumni killed in action. Shocked by the deaths of their former classmates, mourning upperclassmen would turn to underclassmen in the mess hall and say, "I'm going to make you tougher than him," a simple response with profound implications.
Second, the school's active-duty military advisers, known as "tactical officers," were being rapidly rotated overseas for combat duty. "They didn't have stability from the tactical officers, and things got out of hand."
By the early 1980s, upperclassmen were leading group runs dressed like Rambo, complete with cut-off shorts, bandanna headbands and dark glasses.
Legare was not alone in recognizing the problem — former President James Grimsley Jr. said he and others also saw the need for change — but institutional culture is a tough boat to turn.
Throughout the 1980s, Legare split his time as The Citadel's representative to both the media and the Statehouse.
Grimsley, who first met Legare when he was a Virginia high school student and was reintroduced to him in Vietnam, understood that his new hire had no background in public relations, but he also knew that Legare's father did. "I knew that at least somewhere in his genes, Ben had that PR talent," Grimsley said.
As the school's first legislative liaison, Legare's abilities were obvious. The problem, Grimsley said, came in teaching the man how to ease up and act a little less military. "There are times you've got to relax a bit to suit the company you're in."
The Citadel offered its media spokesman little chance for relaxation in those days. With its distinctive traditions and iconoclastic ways, the small military college was a lightning rod for national controversy in the 1980s and 1990s. There were fights over the Confederate flag, fights over playing "Dixie" at football games, fights over the harassment of black cadets.
Sometimes there were fights behind the scenes, too. Legare once spent two hours arguing in front of the president's desk over one sentence in a press release. He concedes that some of the school's alumni were myopic in their opposition to changes that have made the school better.
But most of his difficulties came from dealing with the press, a culture clash that long has vexed the military-minded. Legare once got so frustrated that he called a PR spokesman from Exxon after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill just to talk to someone who could relate to his situation.
Through many of the reforms in the past two decades, Legare was an unsung hero, said retired Deputy Commandant of Cadets Tony Lackey. " Ben was the key person, and he'll never get all the credit he deserves," he said. "Presidents and commandants and board members get the credit. But Ben did the dirty work."
By the early 1990s, when the fight over admitting women to the Corps of Cadets turned the school into a national symbol of defiant Southern stubbornness, Legare found himself working full time in the Legislature while a new spokesman, the famously pugnacious Terry Leedom, took over his press relations duties.
Legare sympathized with Leedom's frustrations even as he urged him to relax.
"There was this theory that we had a moat around us," Legare said. "I've tried to remove the perceived barriers around The Citadel."
Legare wears his Citadel class ring as a wedding band, and one gets the impression that he approached his one-and-only courtship as something of a military operation.
He met his future wife, Susan, at a Christmas mixer for the college-age children of Pentagon military officers in Alexandria, Va. He was a 21-year-old Citadel sophomore. She was a history major from Oklahoma. Legare marched right up to her, introduced himself and commenced pitching woo. Later that night, he told a friend that he'd met his future bride.
They continued to see each other on breaks, and in 1962, Legare proposed — to her father. With that blessing in hand, the couple began making plans for the future, and Susan dropped out of college and went to work. Ben would be an Army officer and Susan would support him. Both knew exactly what they were getting into.
Their first child, Kelly, was born during Legare's first Vietnam tour, and the couple adopted their son, Ben Legare III, in 1970. Susan served as their primary parent, with Ben spending what time he had with the children. There wasn't a lot of it. "My daughter said she saw me the first day of seventh grade and maybe her last day of seventh grade. Those were tough times, and I had tough assignments."
Today, the extended Legare family is a close-knit military brood that sprawls across generations and states, but still finds time to gather for a week each August at a beach house on the Isle of Palms. There are officer-club-style traditions, of course: Everyone is required to be seated for the evening meal, and the daily cocktail hour is known as "The 16:30 Gathering." But their family vacation is a lively, easygoing affair where grandparents get to know grandchildren and nephews learn military lore from highly decorated war-vet uncles. These days, the count is up to 22 family members.
And then there's the golf. He and Susan have won three husband-wife championships in Charleston, and the family vacation features intense competition. Six family members "can beat my brains out," Legare said.
Legare started at 13, playing on a crushed-gravel course left behind by the British Army in Iran. By 15, he was hooked, playing and caddying on military courses around the world. Today, he's a 10-handicap, a member of the Country Club of Charleston since 1984 and a stickler for the rules who takes it upon himself to send good-natured letters to fellow members when he witnesses infractions. He routinely plays or practices four times a week.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Legare had been looking forward to his retirement. The kids are grown, The Citadel is on solid ground, and there is much he and Susan enjoy doing together. But in January, Citadel President Maj. Gen. John Grinalds tossed everyone a curve, announcing his departure to take over as headmaster of Porter-Gaud School in 2006.
Grinalds said he asked Legare to stay on through the budget cycle, and after the college hired Air Force Lt. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr. as Grinalds' replacement, Legare decided to stay on with the administration into 2007.
So in January, instead of kicking back around the clubhouse, Legare will cinch up his tie, check into the Holiday Inn in Columbia and start the rounds of another six-month legislative session. No complaints. He says he has to be part of something greater than himself, and this comes with it.
None of which surprises the people who know him best: "There was no soft-shoe in him," Grimsley said of his former hire. "I guess the word 'integrity' is a synonym for Ben Legare."