Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

The Dick Winters Challenge

By Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
Published in the Sunday News (Lancaster Newspapers) on Sept. 2, 2012

Editor's note: The exemplary life of one of Lancaster's most respected native sons, the late Maj. Richard Winters, was the inspiration for a speech delivered Tuesday by Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield at the 2012 Convocation for the incoming freshman class. Here are excerpts from his remarks about a heroic individual and 1941 F&M graduate whose life, Porterfield notes, holds lessons for all.

To the Class of 2016:
Dick Winters was born in Ephrata in 1918, grew up in Lancaster and began his F&M education in 1937. While Dick Winters had gained no military training at F&M, he learned how to learn here, and that made all the difference.

On June 6, 1944, or D-Day, serving as a platoon leader in Company E, or Easy Company, Dick Winters was one of 150,000 Allied soldiers to invade German-occupied France through Normandy. Air-dropped at 2 a.m. into hostile fire, unable to see the ground beneath him, his first task was to survive, and then to locate fellow soldiers in the darkness and find a way to take out Nazi patrols.

On the first day, he led a group of about 13 men who overwhelmed 50 German soldiers and destroyed four Howitzers that were shelling U.S. soldiers on a crucial road leading from Utah Beach to the French countryside — a feat of strategic brilliance and courage still taught at West Point.

The next day, when the men learned that Easy Company commander Thomas Meehan died with 10 men in a plane crash on D-Day, Dick was made acting commander.

Maj. Winters triumphed with honor not simply because he was brave and strong, but also because he was smart and mentally prepared. His liberal arts education at F&M played a defining role. It contributed to his ability to evaluate options based on limited information, to intuit the motives and fears that drive others, to make ethical decisions under duress, to value the keeping of a daily journal, even in war, and to be an adaptive leader in dire situations.

We offer the example of Maj. Winters on this important day, (and) there are three reasons why:

First, Dick Winters consistently lived his life with virtues worthy of your emulation: hard work. Respect for others. Intellectual seriousness. Moral clarity. Honor. Humility. Leadership through service.

He is remarkable, but also representative, because these are virtues any of us can adopt as our own.

Second, we present Maj. Winters to you, on this day of transition and growth, because your generation also has what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called in 1936 "a rendezvous with destiny."

The students who entered F&M in 1937 with Dick Winters — members of the Greatest Generation — would go on to experience the war against fascism, the end of the Great Depression, the advent of the nuclear age and the massive social changes of the 1960s. Again and again, they were called to adaptive leadership.

You too face the protean challenges of an uncertain age — globalization, climate change, the digital revolution, global terrorism, and America's remarkable demographic, technological and economic changes.

The investment you're making now in developing your mind is the best possible preparation for your rendezvous with destiny.

And we ask you to reflect upon the life and standards of Maj. Winters for a third reason. You now share with him the rich common ground of place and culture. He walked this campus. He learned in some of these buildings. ...

I love the line from Larry Alexander's book where Dick describes the central lesson he learned at F&M that would guide him throughout his life: "Always do your best in everything you try."

If you do that here and now — if you always do your best in everything you try — you will create an education of lifelong value and meaning.

That is the Dick Winters challenge ... to always do our best, in everything we try.

Thank you, and welcome to the education of a lifetime.

Daniel R. Porterfield is the president of Franklin & Marshall College. He traveled to Normandy in June for the dedication of the Richard D. Winters Leadership Monument on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, and the college will bestow its first annual award in honor of Dick Winters this academic year.