My Most Influential Professor: Army Drill Sergeant John Henry

My Most Influential Professor: Army Drill Sergeant John Henry

I graduated from college a full year early, spent the summer working the night shift at ButterKrust Bakery in Lakeland and went to the University of Florida College of Law in fall 1964. 

Gainesville was a blast for a guy coming from an all-male school — football games, parties, sunshine and legal studies on the side. Students believing the study of law would be romantic became disillusioned with the tedium and humiliation when called upon to recite in class. By the summer of ’65, I was two honor points down. Dean Maloney met with me and said, “Mike, you’re too young to be here.” The translation: You’ve got brains, but you’re immature.

In February of 1966, I boarded a train in Plant City for Fort Polk, Louisiana, as a buck private enlistee in the U.S. Army. The first night, Drill Sergeant John Henry asked for volunteers for squad leaders. I did. Then began several weeks of run, shoot, march, crawl in the mud, and verbal chew outs from the Drill Sergeant . Midway through training, he placed two young men in my squad, an African American and a Native American, both of whom were draftees and justifiably depressed.

Late one night, I wrote to Dean Maloney, “I’m at Fort Polk, La., cold, crawling in the mud with an M-14 rifle, and thinking how nice the air conditioned law library would be.”

Time went by quickly. Shortly before the final day, the company commander stopped me and said, “Drill Sergeant graded you.” I cringed. “He gave you a perfect 100.” 

The night before training was over, I stood night duty. The next morning as I was going to change into dress uniform for the graduation ceremony, Drill Sergeant stopped me, grabbed my arm and said, “Forget the ceremony, Martin. Go home.” That was our last meeting. After changing and looking for the base bus, I heard two voices. 

“Martin, are you leaving without saying goodbye to us?”

It was the two kids John Henry placed in my squad. “We’ve got something to say to you.” They both shook my hand and said, “We would follow you anywhere.”

Several months later as I opened the door to the UF Law School library, Dean Maloney saw me, smiled and asked me to come to his home for ethics class. As I sat down at a library table, I felt John Henry on my shoulder, stern with a gleam in his eye. He’s never left.