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Retired Reserve general holds true to West Point roots

  • Published
  • By Harrison Antognioni
  • Mission First Magazine

As he sits among the tributes to past heroes in the Kenna Hall of Army Sports, the Honorable Samuel Lessey Jr., reflects on a multitude of events in his life, ranging from being an Air Force pilot to serving various roles in the Reagan Administration. A period in his life that keeps coming back to the forefront is the cherished time he spent at West Point, a place he learned to appreciate and respect even before becoming a cadet.

Growing up in Chappaqua, N.Y., some 30 miles southeast of West Point, Lessey made frequent trips with his family to witness cadet parades and football games. It was during these trips to the Academy that Lessey began to develop a sense of the importance and value of the traditions West Point had to offer. "Seeing it as a youngster, it was a very impressive place," Lessey remembers. "There was substance. It stood for something, and it represented order and discipline."

Lessey entered West Point in July 1942. He relied on the camaraderie he shared with fellow classmates to survive the difficult adjustments for first-year students attending a service academy. Lessey credits his peers as a vital resource during his time as a cadet, as well as throughout life after graduation.

"I thought, if the guy on my left can make it, and the guy on my right can make it, I sure as heck can make it," Lessey recalls. "From an institution like this, there's a great loyalty and companionship in sharing everything with your classmates, which carries right on through your life."

Along with participating in a number of activities as a cadet, Lessey was a member of the ski team and became the goalkeeper on Army's varsity soccer squad for his last two years.

Upon graduation in June 1945, Lessey was commissioned in the United States Army Air Corps, which would become the United States Air Force on September 18, 1947.

"We received our Pilot's Wings at Stewart Field three days before graduation," Lessey says. He took B-25 training in Douglas, Ariz., and B-24 training in Smyrna, Tenn., before heading overseas to serve in the Army of Occupation in Germany.

Soccer continued to be a part of Lessey's life during his military service. He and some classmates played on the U.S. Army team in Europe. "Our international record was horrible as essentially a pick-up team, but it gave me some visibility," Lessey says. "A Belgian team wanted to hire me, which led to my being assigned to the U.S. Olympic squad for five months in 1948. Unfortunately, a broken bone in my left hand, which happened during a game, precluded my making the team for the trip to London."

Lessey later played on the Harvard graduate school team, and in Alumni games at West Point. In 1971, he established the Col. Edward H. White II Award, which, since that time, has been awarded annually to the outstanding graduating member of the men's soccer team.

After his European duty, Lessey graduated from Harvard Law School in 1951, just prior to being assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy to author and teach a new course in Military Law because of the passage of the new Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"It was an exciting and sensitive assignment and additionally, I was able to qualify in the various aircraft at the Naval Air Station as well as their sailboat fleet," Lessey says. "I convinced a lot of top midshipmen to select the Air Force for their service careers."

Following his tour at the U.S. Naval Academy, Lessey headed to Japan to the 1503rd Air Transport Wing, where he replaced former Army quarterback Arnold Tucker as a pilot in the 99th Air Transport Squadron.

After his time in Japan and Korea, Lessey accepted a commission in the Air Force Reserve and returned to Harvard, this time to earn a MBA degree from Harvard Business School. After graduating in 1956 with his business degree, Lessey pursued a 17-year career on Wall Street, which made it geographically easy to attend events or visit friends and classmates at West Point.

He held a director position with the National Aviation Corporation trust and was an officer of the investment banking firm Shearson, Hammill & Co.

In his Reserve career, after graduating from the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama as a Distinguished Graduate, the Chief of Air Force Reserve called him to active duty to conduct a review of the entire management structure of the Air Force Reserve.

"We changed from a geographical to a functional organization, bringing the Reserves closer to the Active Force," Lessey says. "We implemented the gaining command concept and improved readiness and mission responsiveness.

All this left the Air Force Reserve in good shape for the vastly increased role it played in the coming Gulf War.

"A most stimulating part of my life was serving in the Reagan Administration, being part of the `Reagan Revolution,'" Lessey says.

The President first appointed Lessey as Inspector General of the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation from 1982 to 1986, and later as Director of the Selective Service System, where he served from 1987 to 1991.

"Each appointment required Senate confirmation, an experience in its own right, and each brought its own set of challenges and goals," Lessey remembers.

After leaving Washington, Lessey was appointed Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army for New Hampshire. He later was elected New Hampshire State President for the Association of the United States Army. Among his roles following his time in public service or government, Lessey has served on the Board of Directors of the National Stroke Association since 1990, working as Chairman from 1994 to 2000. He now serves as Chairman Emeritus.

"My father suffered from right-side paralysis and speech loss for the last five years of his life as a result of a stroke," Lessey says. "The mission of the National Stroke Association is to `reduce the incidence and impact of stroke.'"

Lessey had continued to stay active in the West Point community when, in 2003, he was appointed to the Board of Visitors by President George W. Bush. He served on the Board for six years.

"That really brought me back to West Point and enabled me to observe firsthand how much the leadership development process has improved over the years," Lessey says. "It confirmed my belief that West Point is clearly the best leadership development institution in the world."

Along with his other endeavors, Lessey continues to be active at West Point, often making the trip down from his New Hampshire farm. Five times he was the senior graduate marching in the alumni portion of the August `Plebe March-Back' from summer camp. He is a member of the Athletic Director's Circle, was presented the Army "A" Club Award in 2012, and participates annually in the Awards Convocation ceremony. Lessey also serves on the selection committee for the Army Sports Hall of Fame.

"The pattern of my life has been beneficial because I've been in a variety of fields and each one was new and different," Lessey says. "Therefore, there was always a mental challenge. That has made life interesting. Some of it has been military, some of it has been business and some has been charity, and I think that has been healthy for me."

Even after all he has accomplished, whether as a general in the Air Force, a business executive, or as a Presidential appointee, Lessey will always consider West Point a welcome place full of some of his best memories.

"Everyone needs a home plate and West Point is my home plate," Lessey says. "It has great significance in my life. It plays a huge role for me, both in the fundamentals of life and in its spirit. Coming here is a special experience. I love the place."

His devotion to West Point is probably best expressed by the closing remarks from his speech at the 2013 Association of Graduates Donor Day Banquet:

"To know West Point is to love it."

(Editor's note: Story republished with permission, United States Military Academy Athletic Department)