The blast from the Corps of Cadets' cannon, Skipper, can be heard reverberating around Lane Stadium when the Hokies score during home football games. For half a century, Skipper has remained a staple of Corps of Cadets tradition. To celebrate this milestone, a free 50th anniversary event will be held on Oct. 31 in Burruss Hall at 3:30 p.m.
The event will include a presentation in the Burruss Hall auditorium followed by a demonstration on the Drillfield. The Corps of Cadets' marching band, the Highty-Tighties, will also perform.
“The Skipper holds a special place in the history of the Corps and the university, and we are delighted that it will be celebrated in such a special way,” Major General Randal Fullhart said.
Skipper was born in 1963 through the efforts of three cadets: George Fox, Alton “Butch” Harper and Homer “Sonny” Hickam—the last of whom is noted for his biography 'Rocket Boys' that inspired the film October Sky. In those days, Tech was more commonly called the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI).
The cadets were inspired to challenge the cannon “Little John” from Virginia Military Institute, enlisting the help of mechanical engineering students to build a wooden barrel mold that preceded the eventual brass one.
“(Harper) found out that the Virginia state government had given VMI some old cannon and that we could probably get one, too,” Hickam wrote in an article entitled “The Birth of Skipper,” published in the summer 2000 edition of the Virginia Tech Magazine. “Our VPI administration wasn’t interested, however, so Butch decided that—by God—we’d make our own.”
Donations from within the Corps — including scraps of brass for the body — helped facilitate the cannon’s construction. A foundry in Roanoke used these scraps, along with those donated by Hickam’s father, to create the cannon that would eventually be named Skipper, in honor of the President John F. Kennedy, who had died that year. The cadets later found that some of their brass shell casings were not empty, as they’d suspected, so a series of small explosions erupted from the vat during the melting process.
This didn’t halt the creation of the cannon, however. A carriage was created to house it, and its grandeur was tested when cadets filled the barrel with gunpowder-filled condiment bottles and set them off. The Corps was prepared to stun VMI by unveiling their new creation at the showdown football game known as the “Military Classic of the South.”
At the Thanksgiving game, VMI was shocked into silence.
“What a blast! The enclosed stadium concentrated the sound, and football players nearby were practically bowled over by it,” Hickam wrote. “The VMI Corps stopped cheering and just gaped at us. We had a winner.”
Thus a fifty-year tradition was initiated. The university’s commemoration in Burruss Hall on Thursday will honor that history.
“We hope that many people will join us on the 31st,” Major Fullhart said.