How Positivity During the Civil Rights Movement Paved the Road for a Military Veteran and Academic Leader

Dr. Cortez Dial fondly remembers the words of his grandfather,

“Take the high road. It’s less crowded up there.”

That mantra inspired Dial to succeed. He faithfully served his country for 29 years in the U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of colonel, and then successfully transitioned to Virginia State University where he served in multiple positions of increased responsibility at the senior executive level.

He married the love of his life, raised two successful children, and continues to champion efforts to positively impact military-connected children and families around the world.

Perhaps Booker T. Washington had Dial in mind when he said “character is power?” 

For every journey, there is a path, and Dial’s started as a young kid in Illinois. Although his school was in the city, he got a broader education in the summers with family in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arkansas. 

It didn’t take him long to learn that the opportunities for some were not for all. Specifically, African Americans. It was the 1960s – a century removed from the Civil War, and the country was embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement. “I was nine when it started and 19 when it ended,” said Dial. “Those developmental years and what I saw…those experiences really shaped my life moving forward.” 

By the end of the decade, Dial had witnessed a lifetime of history. He saw the news coverage of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Civil Rights leaders Robert F. Kennedy, Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the violence associated with the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights marches. In a world of chaos, and at a time of uncertainty, he remembered the words of his grandfather and drew inspiration from his family.

In the late 1940s, his aunt, Ada Luis Fisher, née Sipuel, was refused admission into the University of Oklahoma School of Law due to her race. The case, led by NAACP lead attorney Thurgood Marshall, won a unanimous decision in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma. One year later, she became the first African American admitted to the University of Oklahoma School of Law. She graduated two years later in 1951.

When asked his thoughts on what Black History Month meant to him, Dial focused on unity. “Our country has accomplished great things together, yet we still don’t have a complete, comprehensive, and inclusive history book that is taught in our school system across the country,” said Dial. “To limit any individual ethic group to a month rather than including everyone’s collective impact, denies our children the American history that includes the contributions of all Americans.” 

He talked about the U.S. military’s approach to history, and offered that when the services talk about their history – it’s collective, and he cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words as a beacon to guide our efforts moving forward: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Dial made it clear that although he learned a lot from the women in his life like his aunt, mother, and grandmother, it was his father, a WWII Veteran who served as a supply sergeant with the U.S. Army, who taught him the most. “The older I got, the more valuable he became,” added Dial. “No matter the situation, he always kept a positive attitude and told me, ‘Be the best you can. It will be okay; keep the faith.’” 

In an interesting twist, Dial, who by his own admission would walk out of the way to avoid military recruiters, attended Northern Illinois and joined the ROTC program. Following graduation in Dec. 1973, Dial commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Adjutant General’s Corps with a combat assigned duty to the Air Defense Artillery in Jan. 1974.

As an aspiring leader, Dial knew he would face challenges – often at times when he would be expected to make split-second decisions that would impact the lives of the soldiers entrusted to him. He expressed to his grandmother that he was nervous because the world is full of unknowns. She told me, “You know you’re going to have the lives of men and their families in your hands? You need to know what you’re doing,” continued Dial.  As he began to reflect on the gravity of her words and the responsibility he knew he would have, she handed him a note that read: “Grandson, take the Lord with you wherever you go. Work hard and to your own self be true. If God will help scientists make penicillin out of molded bread, he’ll help the Army do something with you.”

He noted that over the years, he had shared this note from this grandmother and often received some laughs. However, Dial said that her poetic words actually reminded him that no one person is bigger than the Army. He chose to ground his leadership philosophy and actions to ensure that through his positional authority and interactions with others, he would do all he could to put the Army and his soldiers first. 

Dial stated that Army life was challenging and rewarding, and he valued the opportunities the military afforded service members to address societal concerns within the system. “The military was so far ahead of our society,” added Dial. “As the all-volunteer services began to recruit and change how they manned the force, we got personnel from all corners of the country. Concerns civilian face outside the military are no different than those from men and women in uniform, but we had the ability to address them and reduce them.”

He shared a story that he witnessed first-hand during his first overseas tour in Europe. While at the commissary in Würzburg, Germany, a young, African American Soldier under a program called stripes for skills, where recruits were sent directly to units without basic training or advanced individual training (AIT) based on their civilian skills, where the unit would teach them military bearing. This new soldier on his first assignment, in his first month as a baker in the battalion dining facility, made an impression on the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division in the commissary Dial would never forget.  

“Pvt. Robinson made a beeline toward the two-star general, and said, ‘Hey Sir, aren’t you the general? The man?” Dial said the entire commissary went silent and waited for the general to explode, because the young Soldier had broken just about every rule – spoken and otherwise in approaching the general, but Robinson kept going. 

“I’m so happy to be here. Hey baby (referring to his spouse), bring the kids over here.” Dial was startled as Robinson proudly introduced himself and his family to the division’s senior ranking officer and personally offered to host him at the dining facility where he worked. 

“Two weeks later, we’re in the DFAC for breakfast and in walks the general to have a short bite with Robinson” said Dial. “Later that day, the general gathered the battalion leaders together where he described Robinson’s enthusiasm and passion as magical – specifically noting how he had never met anyone who was so proud to serve in the division.” He then smiled, looked at the battalion commander, and encouraged him to put a little more work on military courtesy. 

In the military where good order and discipline are paramount, and in a world where first impressions often lead to snap judgments, Dial said that event – specifically the way the general responded, showed him the importance of leaders being able to look past military bearing at times and into the heart of people, their intent, and what they mean to the unit. 

As Dial and his wife became parents, they made a commitment to have a strong family dynamic and worked to provide a platform of understanding and encouragement for their children to succeed. “I tried to teach my children the most important thing is to realize their own value and self-worth,” continued Dial. “We are part of a system, and should there be issues when you leave the house, never make excuses. Make it a systems question.” 

Dial believes that in 2021 race is almost always never the primary issue, but it is almost always the strongest secondary issue. “When trust is broken, it becomes the primary issue, and you can never go back,” continued Dial. “It’s up to all of us to cultivate and maintain effective relationships built of mutual trust and respect for one another.”

Dial, who earned a doctorate in education, along with his wife, a Spellman College and University of Michigan graduate who taught at multiple universities throughout Dial’s military tenure, instilled their passion for learning and growth with their children. 

Their son is a graduate of the US. Air Force Academy. He currently serves as a pilot for the U.S. Air Force and is completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern. Their daughter is the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at her alma mater Stephens College. 

Dial retired from Active Duty as a colonel in 2003 and immediately transitioned into the academic career field the same year at Virginia State University. His experience, positivity and commitment led him to positions of increased responsibility including the director of residence life, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and the president’s chief of staff. Dial officially retired, for the second time, in 2017, after serving as an associate professor in the mass communications department. 

He currently serves on the MCEC® board of directors and uses his positivity and passion to help shape advocacy, education and collaborative efforts to ease the burdens transitions cause for military-connected kids. “MCEC reflects the inclusive fabric of our country, and that’s so important,” continued Dial. “We’re always moving forward, reassessing where we are, how we can better provide services, and be an advocate in transitions.”

Locally, Dial is a leader in his home state of Virginia and works with the Mega Mentors of Chesterfield County, the Community Transformers Foundation, the Martha Mason Hill Memorial Foundation, and the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Petersburg, Va. 

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