Thomas Jefferson understood the strategic significance of West Pointʼs high ground over the Hudson River as he surveyed the stronghold 221 years ago. This realization prompted Jefferson to sign the Military Peace Establishment Act in 1802, cementing West Pointʼs establishment as an institution of academic learning and military instruction.
On March 16, 1902, the first celebrated Founders Day dinner took place, honoring 100 years of graduates who etched their names in the history books. Since then, the formal event has been a tradition that commemorates the academyʼs founding and the ultimate sacrifices made to defend the nation.
The tradition continues as cadets, staff and faculty gathered at the Cadet Mess Hall to celebrate Founders Day March 16 at the U.S. Military Academy. During the event, Class of 2023 Cadet First Captain Lauren Drysdale unveiled the new black, with gold trim, West Point robe, which received an ovation from cadets eager to try it on.
Afterward, guest speaker, Erica Jeffries Purdo, vice president of Strategy and Operations, Global Corporate Affairs at Johnson & Johnson, and USMA 1998 graduate, shared her experience as a cadet at West Point, her time in service in the Army, and imparted words of wisdom meant to underscore the impactful legacy of the Long Gray Line.
"To be perfectly honest, when the planning committee approached me about speaking tonight, I thought they were joking. I said, 'I know a lot of graduates who are already phenomenal, and they would do a great job delivering a speech.' In fact, I have not one but two classmates, Frank Rubio and Andrew Morgan, who have literally been to outer space," Purdo said. "I wasn't sure how to commemorate this evening, but I'm here because Duty, Honor, Country is engrained in me.”
Throughout her speech, Purdo addressed the history of West Point and how the institution evolved over time through the multicultural influences of many cadets from diverse backgrounds.
She also mentioned the trailblazing women that have paved the way for innovation in the Army and have added to the legacy of the Long Gray Line.
"I was really tuned into her speech because not only did she talk about West Point, she mentioned her experiences outside of West Point, which impacted me," Class of 2026 Cadet Chadon Foreman said. "What especially resonated with me was when she mentioned that the people who founded the institution didn't have someone like her in mind to consider as a cadet. It just emphasized how much has changed at West Point over the years, and I'm fortunate that people like her have paved a way for women like me."
Class of 2024 Cadet Alexander Mobley felt Purdo's speech motivated him to persevere toward graduation and increased his enthusiasm to help shape a more secure nation while leading his future Soldiers.
"Purdo made me feel like I was part of something that was bigger than myself," Mobley said. "To be honest, the biggest takeaway I got from her speech was caring about others more than myself and thinking deeply about how I'm part of a team now. Essentially, it helped me affirm that I'm part of something major in the Army."
As the event concluded, Drysdale presented a plaque to Purdo on behalf of the Corps of Cadets, thanking her for inspiring future leaders to carry the torch while adding to their storied inheritance of the Long Gray Line.
"All of you cadets tonight, give me great hope for the future of our nation. As a proud member of the Class of 1998, I'm proud to say that our class is doing more than its part in supporting the Long Gray Line because there are 20 cadets in this room tonight, who are the offspring of my classmates," Purdo added. "Before I go, I'd like to offer you some parting guidance. And I'm going to make it easy for you by putting it into three mnemonic words: Live, give and lead."