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MMI’s 175 years of history

America’s oldest military junior college marches into its third century of educating future leaders

The entire Marion Military Institute Corps of Cadets, faculty and staff celebrates “Marion Made Day” on October 4, 2017 in honor of college founder Colonel J.T. Murfee.

By Alvin Benn

Marion Military Institute is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year with numerous events planned to commemorate one of America’s most historic educational facilities.

It will never rival West Point or Annapolis because of its size, but it has left indelible marks as MMI continues into its third century of excellence during times of war and peace.

MMI is America’s oldest military junior college with an origin dating back to 1842 — two decades after Alabama became a state. That’s quite a pedigree to promote.

Universities across America are rightly proud of what they have accomplished through the years, but MMI has its own reasons for such a lengthy existence.

In addition to its academic achievements, it’s also known for military programs that have educated hundreds of future generals and admirals to help protect America. The list of MMI graduates is extensive, with every branch of the military represented. Many have paid the supreme price in defense of their country.

But there is no military obligation in attending MMI; about 40 percent of the cadets are not pursuing a military career. The civilian track students come to MMI to gain peer leadership experience, earn an associate’s degree, prepare to transfer to a four-year university as a junior, and/or compete as a student-athlete on one of the school’s nine National Junior College Athletic Association teams.

The school offers the opportunity to live a disciplined lifestyle while gaining practical experience in leadership and organizational management.

Members of the 1921 MMI “Navy Class” were preparing to transfer to the U.S. Naval Academy; the Marion pipeline to the five U.S. Service Academies continues to this day as a one-year MMI program.

Future once in doubt

MMI has had loyal graduate support throughout its long history, but its existence appeared in danger at one point.

That happened two decades ago when a majority of MMI trustees voted to move the school to Fort McClellan in Anniston, where the facility was in the process of being closed by the Army.

The federal government had offered the east Alabama site as a new location, but a two-thirds vote was required. It fell one vote short on the 18-member board.

What made the situation doubly hard to swallow was the fact that the proposed move to Fort McClellan was orchestrated by Thomas Adams, MMI’s president at the time.

A storm of controversy followed Adams’ recommendation that MMI be moved from Marion, and that eventually led to his resignation as president shortly after he suggested it. He refused to back down from his recommendation to leave Perry County, insisting the school was in too remote a location.

The uproar at MMI was not unexpected and Adams’ idea backfired. He officially tendered his resignation to the chairman of the MMI Board of Trustees on Aug. 9, 1999. It was accepted “with great reluctance.”

The controversy slowly subsided, but it took a few years to ease the unrest just as the state of Alabama entered the picture with a merger idea that helped save MMI.

In 2006 the Alabama Legislature placed the school under the auspices of the Alabama Department of Post-Secondary Education.

MMI cadets from around the country learn to work together in a peer leadership environment.

That move turned out to be an educational shot in the arm that was badly needed. MMI is now officially known as “The Military College of Alabama.”

As part of the transition from private to public institution, MMI phased out its high school program, one that had attracted thousands of students through the years. The last high school class graduated in 2009 from MMI’s prep-school that had dated back to 1887.

New leadership

Marion’s population and businesses have dwindled in past decades – a distressing development for local leaders who have watched the shrinkage grow before their eyes.

Retired drug store owner Roy Barnett, 80, can remember when Marion had three pharmacies surrounded by other thriving businesses.

Judson College, an all-female college located only a few blocks from MMI, has helped make Marion educational bookends. That’s why Barnett named his business “College City Drugs.”

“MMI is what’s driven our economy for many years, but our downtown district has gone through some bad times and it’s not good,” Barnett says.

New leadership at MMI couldn’t have come at a better time, especially with the hiring of retired Marine Col. David Mollahan as the school’s 16th president.

A Marine aviator with 4,100 flight hours under his belt, including hundreds of hours on combat missions, Mollahan liked what he saw the first time he got a glimpse of the MMI campus.

“It had really impressive, stately-looking facilities that you’d think of in the South,” says Mollahan, an Oregon native, after he completed an interview process.

A nuclear engineer as well as a military helicopter pilot, Mollahan has thoroughly enjoyed the past nine years since he took command of MMI. At the moment, he’s busy stepping up efforts to bring more cadets into the fold.

“We’re getting the word out about who we are as well as the unique things we have available that they aren’t going to find anywhere else, especially in leadership and character development,” Mollahan says.

What concerns him today are “myths” perpetrated by detractors. He’s been working hard to dispel them as he moves toward completion of his first decade at the helm.

“Some claim we’re not much more than a boarding school for troubled students and that half of our students aren’t going to class.”

MMI has had fluctuating enrollments for years, with highs in the 600-800 range at times, but that was due to MMI’s prep school involvement. Without a high school now, enrollment has dropped into the mid-450 range, and Mollahan is confident that is what was needed.

“This is a special place with opportunities for students to come here,” he says. “What we do here is develop young people of high character with fundamental leadership skills.”

Mollahan says MMI’s in-state tuition is about $16,000 a year, with out-of-state student tuition listed at about $22,000. He said the school’s annual budget is in the $13 million range, with support from Alabama’s Educational Trust Fund — one of the benefits of being under the

MMI cadets are put to the test on their new, military-grade obstacle course that teaches them physical and mental endurance.

state’s financial wing.

Looking forward

If special thanks are in order at Alabama’s “new” MMI, it belongs to Dean Mooty Jr., who spent five years at the school encompassing high school and junior college before moving on to the University of Alabama. Mooty, who grew up in Marion and created a prominent law firm in Montgomery, not only devotes much of his free time to MMI, but he’s also chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees.

Celebrations have begun on the MMI campus and smiles abound as Mollahan, his staff and cadets take part in events to honor Alabama’s unique one-of-a-kind facility.

Mollahan and parents of cadets took part in the official kickoff event in September when he delivered a speech, followed by the cutting of a “birthday cake” at a packed gymnasium.

He used a number attached to the celebration that also included a “cresting ceremony,” signifying the official welcoming of young men and women into MMI’s Corps of Cadets.

“Today we mark 175 years of history, 175 years full of momentous events, 175 years of ups and downs, 175 years behind us, 175 years ahead,” the president said in his address.

O’Neal Holmes, director of MMI’s alumni and community affairs programs, said a time capsule will be buried in April as part of acknowledging a milestone event in the school’s history.

“Being here has meant everything to me,” he says.