Retiring GMC president credited with saving, transforming Milledgeville school

lfabian@macon.comApril 27, 2013 

Army officers have a saying.

“No unit is as lousy as the one you take over or as good as the one you leave,” said retired Maj. Gen. Peter Boylan, who ends his 21-year tenure as president of Georgia Military College in June.

In most instances, it is likely just the commander’s perception, but the GMC community knows the adage speaks truth in this case.

Retired Army Col. Fred Van Horn, executive vice president of the two-year community college and high school, arrived on the Milledgeville campus three years after Boylan.

“When considering his impact, there a lot of words you could choose. Seismic would be a good place to start,” Van Horn said. “Serving Georgians from Atlanta south to Valdosta and from Augusta to Columbus, the impact has been significant for the state.”

Every building on the Baldwin County campus has been rebuilt or renovated under Boylan’s watch. Since 1992, high school enrollment has surged from 230 to 500, with a waiting list for grades six to 12. The number of community college students increased tenfold to 8,000 as the general opened four new campuses and added online instruction that reaches people across the country and on military bases.

Besides the main campus in Milledgeville, GMC students study in Warner Robins, Sandersville, Madison, Columbus, Augusta (Martinez), Valdosta, Stone Mountain and Fairburn.

Faculty increased from eight full-time teachers to 130 -- and about as many adjunct professors. The $7.6 million budget in the early ’90s soared to $100 million in 2013.

The school was in financial shambles and was forced to borrow $320,000 for payroll just before Boylan arrived. The GMC Foundation owed $400,000, and the school had borrowed big money to start a football team. Accounts were 120 days past due, and there had been 50 years of deferred maintenance on the school’s crumbling buildings, including the former state Capitol.

“It was a challenge, but I was able to reduce accounts payable to zero after about a year,” Boylan recalled.

The military man, who will be 77 by the time he takes on emeritus status this summer, remembers a GMC teacher’s remarks after the institution’s finances went from red to black -- which happen to be the school’s colors.

“This was the first time in 20 years that I knew we were going to be here next year,” the veteran educator told him.

Thinking about the dramatic turnaround, Boylan dismissed his role.

“They pin medals on leaders, but it’s armies that win wars,” he said during an interview after a recent military parade on campus. “I have discovered we have an army here that believes character is an important part of education.”

The highly decorated officer, who graduated from West Point in 1961, later earned a Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, three Bronze Stars -- including two for valor -- and a Purple Heart.

He was the only member of his group to survive a fierce attack early into his first of two tours in Vietnam.

Boylan was shot in the thigh and was hit by a 40mm grenade, which left 70 holes in his 6-foot-2 inch body.

“You could string me up by my hair, put a garden hose in my mouth and I would have looked like a sprinkler,” he joked.

After four painful months in a hospital in Japan, he opted not to return to the States but to continue his tour of duty -- although his leg would be numb for years.

On his second tour, he was one of the last to leave Vietnam in 1973.

Pushed to persevere

“Duty, honor, country,” is the motto that sank into his bones while he was studying at the U.S. Military Academy.

His two sons and one of his three daughters also attended West Point. His grandson, Elliot Fairbrass, Baldwin County’s 2013 STAR student, is headed there after he graduates from GMC, making the family’s third generation of cadets.

“Character above all” is another motto Boylan brought to Milledgeville.

Banners hang from light posts, and cadets echo the slogans several times a day.

“I like to think over time it becomes part of them,” Boylan said.

About 250 college students are in the ROTC program. All high school students must enroll in Junior ROTC and wear military-style uniforms.

“We’re not trying to make soldiers out of them,” he said. “We just use the military as a means of creating a strict environment.”

His Ethics Across the Curriculum program brings character-building examples into all subjects. The local newspaper even publishes an inspirational word of the week.

When GMC alumnus Stephen Simpson launched the Peter J. Boylan endowment fund for a Chair of Ethics, he wanted to honor the longest-serving president in the school’s 134-year history.

“I’ve never met anyone who epitomizes leadership as Gen. Boylan does,” said Simpson, a 20-year Army veteran himself. “Unlike many leaders, his character and ethics shine when others fail.”

Boylan’s influence launched the first National Junior College Ethics Bowl this month through a generous grant he secured from New York Life.

“If we can make this National Ethics Bowl work, we’ll have a national impact,” Boylan said.

It was the general’s leadership style that sealed the deal for the GMC board of trustees that hired him.

The soldier, who grew up milking cows on a Wisconsin farm, doesn’t surround himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear, but what he needs to hear.

During his initial visit to GMC, it certainly didn’t hurt that he and the board chairman, Dr. James Baugh, both had served in the 82nd Airborne. Baugh, a Milledgeville doctor and former mayor, was a charter member of the division and served at the Battle of the Bulge.

They hit it off immediately.

Beegee Baugh said her late husband knew right away that Boylan was the one to save GMC.

“You can see what he’s done from the looks of the school. It’s just unreal,” Baugh said. “We’re so indebted to him in many ways.”

Boylan was on the 82nd Airborne’s first plane into Grenada in 1983, and he parachuted into Honduras the following spring to ensure the sanctity of neighboring El Salvador’s first democratic elections.

Highlights of his military career include serving as commandant of cadets at West Point, working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and as inspector general of the United States Army.

“Because you’re a part of such a large machine, you sometimes feel you don’t have a large impact,” Boylan said, reflecting on why he fell in love with his job at GMC.

His stint commanding 70,000 people in the 10th Mountain Division and overseeing the $1.5 billion construction of the new Fort Drum, N.Y., prepared him to lead the charge to rebuild GMC.

Boylan ended his 31-year Army career six months before taking the helm of the school.

As a field soldier all his life, he hated being cooped up at the Pentagon and decided to retire.

He endured five months as CEO of a fledgling New York City-based company grooming former soldiers for executive positions. Although one of his perks was a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park, he couldn’t bear to be micromanaged by his board of directors.

From vision to vitality

He left the glamour of Wall Street for a weed-infested Southern campus with decaying buildings.

When the school’s finances were in order, he renovated the Sibley-Cone Library in 1996.

In speeches to civic organizations and meetings with lawmakers, he rallied the civilian and legislative troops to support GMC financially.

“Creating a master plan and drive to enable that vision to become a reality. That aspect of providing governance to this institution was very fulfilling,” he said.

Boylan dedicated the new Zell Miller Hall academic building in 1997.

Parham Hall, the business and financial aid building, came the following year.

In 2000, the Old Capitol was better than new. Boylan courted community members to furnish a history museum that brings visitors to the ground floor.

The next year brought a new soccer field and four tennis courts.

The new Ruark Athletic Complex followed in 2003, along with Craig Field for baseball and Couch Field for softball.

The new academic building in 2005 included the 407-seat Goldstein Center for the Performing Arts.

Boylan recruited the Steinway Society to purchase one of the prestigious pianos to lure world-renowned pianists for concerts.

Besides the general’s expertise in politics, education and finances, Baugh said his cultural fervor as an arts aficionado spread beyond the campus.

“It’s made an amazing impact on our community,” she said.

By 2006, the new Baugh Barracks, named for her late husband, was complete.

Grant Parade field followed the next year, with the new preparatory school, Usery Hall, dedicated in 2010.

The Health and Wellness Center, slated to open in December, has been his final project.

One of his favorites projects is the community river trail he spearheaded on the edge of campus.

During a recent golf cart ride to the Oconee River, he and his wife found dozens of students studying on blankets in the warm sunshine. Others were enjoying hammocks strung in the trees.

Facing the future

Boylan remains in good health and is physically active, although 200 parachute jumps have taken their toll on his back.

The commandant, who routinely challenged West Point cadets to chin-up contests to build relationships and earn trust, now walks with a cane.

After five back surgeries he’ll never be able to stand straight again, but he can drive a Sea-Doo like a madman on Lake Sinclair, said Kathy Boylan, the Ladycliff College student he married 52 years ago.

They got engaged a few months after they met while she was studying at the Catholic women’s college outside the West Point gates.

After repeatedly moving and staying in military properties during their Army days, the family finally settled in their own home on the lake. Those deep roots won’t likely be pulled up in retirement, they say.

Once he leaves his post, don’t look for him to completely fill his days golfing, fly-fishing or working in his woodworking shop.

“He’s always looking to the future, another mountain to climb,” Kathy Boylan said.

His sights are set now on the sprawling campus of the former Central State Hospital. He’s lobbying for the state to transfer property to a local authority to rent to businesses that would begin paying taxes, instead of the buildings being an annual $12 million maintenance liability.

“From a purely business perspective, it makes a lot of sense,” he said.

He wants to help Milledgeville become a certified literate community by encouraging residents to earn their GED.

“He inspires people to be better than they ever thought they would be,” Kathy Boylan said.

During the school’s recent parade celebrating health and wellness, high school teacher Emily Boylan Fairbrass watched the cadets salute her father and pass in review.

“When I see the little kids go by, I see me,” Fairbrass said. “They’re looking at him and staring at him in awe, like I did growing up. It’s not fear, it’s respect.”

She and her husband, GMC junior college biology professor Mark Fairbrass, watched with pride as her dad presented awards to their sons, Elliot and Liam, a sophomore.

“He wants you to be your best without saying anything, you just know,” she said. “You’re a little more conscious of how you’re standing, how you’re behaving.”

Reflecting back, Boylan said he’s put so much of himself into his job that he does not have any professional regrets.

He knows he has fewer days ahead than those behind him, and he’s looking forward to focusing more on his family.

“The blessing was entirely on me,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here more than I can ever describe. Being with the young people, building an organization, building an ethos in this institution, has been a joy.”

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