At this year’s Alumni Luncheon during Homecoming on October 15th, Gen Walter Boomer ’56, USMC, Retired, was recognized with the Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Upon graduating from Randolph-Macon Academy, Boomer attended Duke University with the intent of eventually serving a few years as an officer in the Navy, something that had been a longtime dream of his mother’s. Upon arriving at Duke, however, the young man realized that he could become a Marine, and something about the idea called to him.
When he first shared the news with his mother, she did not take kindly to the idea. Having been raised in Norfolk, “she thought the epitome of a gentleman was a Navy officer,” Boomer explained. When he shared his desire to become a Marine, she was immediately against it. Eventually, however, she came to understand that this was the best decision for her son.
“I still didn’t intend to stay for a career. I had no intention of staying in the Marine Corps,” Boomer emphasized. “I was going to serve my two, three years and get out. But it began to resonate. I really began to like it. And perhaps most importantly I really developed a respect for those above me. They just seemed to be good men.”
Although he initially turned down the regular commission offered to him (he had a reserve commission at that time), Boomer changed his mind and the Marines were happy to welcome him in as a regular infantry officer. He served two tours in Vietnam; the first one as infantry company commander in 1966-1967. The second time was in 1971-72 as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marines; the U.S. Marines had, by that time, pulled out.
After Vietnam, he served a series of different tours, while at the same time, the Marine Corps sent him to graduate school at American University. With the completion of his degree there, Boomer owed the Marines a “payback tour” in which he had to serve a tour of duty associated with the degree. In his case, that meant teaching for three years at the Naval Academy, where he headed up the Department of Management.
His next move was to Hawaii as a battalion commander, where he was deployed around the Pacific. “When I was a colonel, I was on recruiting duty,” he recalled. “And then, lightning struck. They decided to promote me to brigadier general. Those of us that were selected looked around at our colleagues and said, ‘How did they pick us?’ But nevertheless, they did.”
In spite of the fact that his career had been built on being an infantry officer, Boomer’s first assignment as a brigadier general was as the public affairs officer for the Marine Corps. Boomer was stunned, as he had no experience in public affairs, but he accepted the assignment without question, determined to do his best…even though internally he was certain that his career as a general officer was over before it had even begun.
“It turned out to be a great job,” he said. “I learned a lot, I made a lot of friends in the media at the national level. The job helped me later on too, because I understood the media, how to work with them, who they were.”
At his next promotion to major general, he was stationed in New Orleans as the head of all the Marine Corps Reserve. Then he was promoted again, to lieutenant general. “Literally driving from New Orleans to my next duty station at Camp Pendleton, California, I heard on the news that Iraq had invaded Kuwait.” At the time, driving cross-country, he was out of touch with headquarters, but he knew what it meant. He arrived at Camp Pendleton on schedule, and nine days later he was in Saudi Arabia.
Boomer was now in charge of all the Marines during the first Gulf War—92,000 men and women. “We liberated Kuwait, came back home,” he summarized. “I think it was done well, it was done quickly. And it was done with little loss of life. And then we left.”
Upon his return to the States, he hoped to stay at Camp Pendleton for a while, but the Commandant asked him to return and become the commanding general at Quantico. “All of our school systems are at Quantico, [including] Marine Corps University, and he said, ‘That’s where we really need you.’” So once again, Boomer went where he was needed. “At that point, I fully intended to leave, because I wasn’t going to get a better job than the one I had.”
However, by this time, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was a friend of Boomer’s: Gen Carl Mundy. And he wasn’t about to let Boomer go just yet. Mundy called and, according to Boomer, said, “I want you to come to Washington and be the Assistant Commandant.” Boomer expressed his reluctance, feeling it was time to retire, but eventually acquiesced. He spent a few years in that position before finally retiring in 1994 at age 55.
Boomer left the Marine Corps with a purpose in mind: to become the CEO of a major corporation. He started out at McDermott International in New Orleans. He was there for six months and was then asked to move to Ohio to become president of Babcock and Wilcox, a company they had acquired. He was in that position for two years, then became CEO at Rogers Corporation. He moved Rogers from the American Exchange to the New York Stock Exchange, and was chairman and CEO for nine years.
Boomer has served on several Boards of Directors, including Baxter International, CYTEC, and the boards of several private companies. For a number of years, he was also the chairman of the Marine Heritage Foundation, which is building the National Museum of the Marine Corps. The group has raised over $170 million and the last half of the museum is expected to be completed in the spring of 2017.
With such a long, honorable career in both the military and the civilian business world, it is little wonder that Boomer was selected to receive the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award for 2016. After receiving the award, Boomer said, “R-MA has always meant a lot to me, so I was truly honored to receive the Alumni of the Year Award at this year’s homecoming. We are all products of our upbringing. In addition to a wonderful supportive family, R-MA played a very important role during a formative period in my life. The life's lessons I learned from a great, dedicated faculty and staff served me well in the ensuing years. You’re at an age when you’re at R-MA when you’re looking for role models. My parents were good role models for me, thankfully, but you also need more than that. And the faculty here at that time left an impression on me in terms of the way they conducted themselves, in terms of the way they led us, in terms of the way they disciplined us, in terms of the way they taught us.”
Combined with the education and the exposure to the military program, he concluded, “I came away, I think, better set up to handle what was coming down the road as a result of my time here. I believe R-MA provides the same wonderful education and guidance for its students today and it will continue to receive my support."