The rich heritage of Morgan State University's ROTC program is about to get richer: Lt. Gen. Larry R. Ellis, class of '69, has been nominated for one of the top posts in the Army, one that comes complete with four stars on the uniform and command of more than 760,000 soldiers.
Ellis is the 10th officer commissioned out of Morgan State's ROTC program to make it to the rank of general. School officials say Morgan State has produced more African-American generals than any other school, including West Point -- a notable achievement that is driven home to the school's current ROTC students.
"We know all about that," says current cadet Jaison Bloom, 25. "It's one of the first things they let us know."
Maj. Keith A. Beverley, the program's executive officer, can tick off the Morgan generals: the three on active duty, Ellis, Maj. Gen. William E. Ward, Brig. Gen. Benny E. Williams; and those retired, Brooks, James, Jacobs, Chandler, Rozier, Prather, Dean. "We give the kids quizzes on this," he says.
But those generals emerged in a different era, when black students had few choices beyond the historically black colleges and when ROTC at places like Morgan State was required of all able-bodied males for their first two years.
"Morgan has had one of the best ROTC programs throughout the history of the Army," says Lt. Col. Richard Matthews, a member of Ellis' staff in the Pentagon. "Morgan is referred to as the West Point of the East."
Now, in part by using its distinguished heritage, Morgan State is rejuvenating what had become a moribund program during the early 1990s, hoping it will again start turning out future generals.
Lt. Col. Joseph E. Bozeman Jr., who formerly headed the program, says there were 38 students when he arrived in 1995. The program was commissioning five officers a year -- a big fall-off from its historic output.
"This was a program that from 1948 to 1990 was averaging 20 to 25 lieutenants a year," said Bozeman, who is now executive director of enrollment management at Morgan. "That was as high as anybody in the country. We were talking about 50 years of excellence."
He says the decline was part of a nationwide trend, but it was even more marked at Morgan because of the program's history of excellence.
Bozeman says he had the support of school President Earl Richardson -- an Air Force ROTC graduate of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore -- in rebuilding the program.
"It was a very, very important part of campus history, and we wanted to revive that," Richardson says. "We're not just talking about the 10 generals, but the colonels and lieutenant colonels just below the general rank."
The program has more than 200 students and is back to commissioning more than 20 officers a year. Bozeman says the Army ranked Morgan's program 265th of the 270 in the country in 1995. Now it is eighth.
"I'm walking tall," says Bozeman, who retired from the Army last year.
Part of the rejuvenation plan was involving the program's distinguished alumni who then became frequent visitors to the campus. Ellis gave the school's commencement address last year.
"You just have to pick up the phone and they are here," Bozeman says. "It makes a huge difference -- like in any profession -- if you can come and see a role model, what you aspire to do. You say, 'I can do that.'"
That affects students like Tommy Skanes, a soft-spoken 21-year-old who came to Morgan State from a small town in Alabama and signed up for ROTC. He is contemplating a military career after his graduation and commissioning next year.
"There were only two ways out of my town," he says of Florala, Ala. "College or the military. I decided to combine them."
The journey he made was not unlike that taken more than 35 years ago when Ellis left Cambridge on the Eastern Shore and moved to Baltimore to attend Morgan.
"I came to get an education, not to get into the Army," says Ellis. "I didn't even know what ROTC was when I started at the university. It was not in my plan, quite frankly. But it is interesting what you fall in love with sometime."
Ellis, who met his wife at Morgan, was in one of the last classes that required ROTC of men in their first two years. He looks back on it as part of the way Morgan molded its students.
"You have to remember we had just gone through integration in the state, my 10th-grade year in high school," he says. "Places like Morgan got the best of the black students and the best of the black faculty. There was great leadership there."
Even after getting his commission, Ellis was unsure of a military career. But after a variety of success -- he was promoted to captain in Vietnam -- he decided on it.
"I had already done the hard things including combat -- it can't get any worse than that -- so I figured I should enjoy the fruits of my labor," he says.
Ellis rose in the ranks, making brigadier general in 1992. He is now deputy chief of staff for Operations and Plans, stationed at the Pentagon. If confirmed by the Senate, he would head the U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga., as one of a dozen four-star generals in the Army.
Lt. Shawnda Johnson, who was commissioned when she graduated from Morgan in May, says Richardson, the school president, threw out another challenge at her commencement.
"He said Morgan had 10 generals, but it had yet to have a female general," says Johnson, who will be in military intelligence at a base in Arizona in the fall. "We all looked at each other wondering which one of us it might be."