In February 1968, Harry Gore opened the newspaper and, much to his surprise, read that he would integrate the Virginia Military Institute.

VMI officials had just told the media that they had accepted their first black applicant and that the applications of four other blacks were under consideration for the 1968-69 year.

"There was no name in the newspaper," Gore recalled. "But I thought: Shucks, I was just accepted by VMI. I'm black. That's me.' "

Without fanfare, lawsuits or federal monitors, VMI became the last public college in the state to integrate when Gore and four other young black men, all Virginians, enrolled on Aug. 22, 1968.

Today, three of those five -- Gore, Philip Wilkerson and Richard Valentine -- returned for their 25th-year reunion to a school that is again in the midst of change as it assimilates women.

Unlike the 30 women who broke VMI's gender barrier this fall, the school's first black cadets had little sense of their pioneering role. Wilkerson and Valentine, like Gore, said they decided to attend VMI before they knew they would be integrating the school. The three also said they believe that the assimilation of women on a campus known for its harsh physical and emotional abuse of freshmen is much more challenging than the adjustment they faced.

Yet they also remembered how their arrival on campus 29 years ago stimulated change for the better. Gradually, their presence -- and quiet protests -- sparked a debate over the place of Confederate symbolism at VMI and ultimately led to its elimination.

In 1967, then-Superintendent George R.E. Shell announced that VMI would accept black applicants. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare had threatened the state with a loss of federal funds if its colleges did not integrate, and one by one through the 1960s, they did.

Frank Easterly, First Class president of VMI's Class of 1969, held a series of meetings with groups of students to stress that the tough initiation of freshmen, known as the Rat Line, would continue without favor or discrimination -- a tiny forerunner of the mass meetings held this year to prepare students and staff for the arrival of women.

"There was a minority, a small minority, who had a strong negative reaction, and they were rather strident and not very tactful in the way they expressed their opinion," said Easterly, now a Richmond businessman. "But there were no incidents, if that's the word. It became pretty clear early on that it wasn't going to be a problem."

Valentine, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., and runs a consulting business, says integration at VMI, for the most part, "turned out to be a non-event."

"In the Rat Line, everyone was treated {harshly}, and you don't think it's racially motivated because the white guy next to you is getting it too," said Valentine, who grew up in Newport News, Va., and spent most of his career after VMI as an engineer at AT&T Corp.

But beyond the leveling rigors of the Rat Line, VMI was also an institution adorned with troubling symbols for a black cadet, as well for as some of its white students.

At a ceremony held in New Market, Va., each May to commemorate the valor of VMI men in a Civil War battle, the Confederate flag was flown, and cadets were expected to salute it. The regimental band played "Dixie."

Confederate flags and the playing of "Dixie" also were common at sporting events. And cadets were obliged to salute as they passed Lee Chapel on the campus of neighboring Washington and Lee University, where Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, is buried.

Gore and Valentine balked at those traditions. Gore, who later spent 24 years in the Air Force and retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel, was then a drummer in the regimental band. When it came time to play "Dixie," he simply stopped drumming -- every time.

For all four years they were at VMI, Gore and Valentine refused to salute the Confederate flag. In fact, Valentine, as a First Class lieutenant, remembers giving the order to salute to his company and then not saluting himself. When they could, they took guard duty to avoid ceremonies replete with Confederate symbols. And they always avoided Lee Chapel so they would not have to salute.

"I had never in my life saluted a Confederate flag, and I was never going to," said Valentine, adding that the school chose to ignore their civil disobedience.

Wilkerson, on the other hand, said he swallowed his resentments for the sake of military cohesion. By his senior year, he was a captain and company commander.

"In a ceremony, if the order was to salute, I saluted," said Wilkerson, now an Army colonel who is moving to the Washington area from Fort Rucker, Ala., because of a transfer to the Pentagon. "Did I like it? No. But there were more pros than cons at VMI, many more. . . . VMI, in many ways, shaped the person I became."

After 1968, as increasing numbers of black students enrolled, addressing the issue of Confederate symbols became more and more pressing. A growing number of black cadets tired of the administration's nod-and-a-wink approach to their protests, and in 1973 they threatened to go AWOL for the New Market ceremony. The entire student body, in response, voted narrowly to eliminate the playing of "Dixie" and the display of the Confederate flag.

The VMI Board of Visitors then voted to change nothing in the ceremony. But the school nonetheless dropped "Dixie" and found ways to make it easier for black cadets to avoid saluting the Confederate flag. In 1974, for instance, the New Market ceremony was held after graduation when only a voluntary corps remained on post.

By the late 1970s, VMI had quietly and completely abandoned the Confederate flag. The New Market ceremony endures, and the tradition of saluting at Lee Chapel continues on a voluntary basis. Of the 460 freshmen who enrolled this fall, 34 were African Americans.

The other two black cadets to integrate VMI in 1968 were Larry Foster, who died in a drowning accident in the summer after his freshman year, and Adam Lawrence Randolph, who dropped out in 1970 and could not be reached last week for comment.

Gore, Wilkerson and Valentine all confess to having had qualms about whether women would disrupt VMI's core traditions, which had seemed so bound up with the school's all-male character.

"I wasn't flat opposed to women going, but VMI has a system that works and nothing about the system changes when black men are introduced," Valentine said. "VMI can adapt. It's adapted before. I was just hoping that the arrival of women wouldn't change the fundamental things, like the Rat Line."

The three look back on their year in the Rat Line with the glory-days fondness of all its survivors. All three have stayed in touch over the years, although today was only the second time since 1972 that they have been together on post. Wilkerson, who grew up in Hampton, Va., and is the first black VMI graduate to make colonel in the Army, held his promotion ceremony at VMI two years ago to demonstrate his affection for the institute.

"VMI was an incredible bonding experience, and not just for the three of us," said Gore, also from Hampton, who now lives in O'Fallon, Ill., and works for a defense contractor. "My roommate, Tom Hathaway, became like my second brother, and we're still very close."

And today was a day for laughter, bearhugs and old stories. Hathaway recalled how he once suggested to Gore that they sneak across the parade ground, a privilege reserved for upperclassmen. "It was getting dark, and I said to Harry, They'll never be able to tell we're rats,' " Hathaway said. "And Harry looks at me with this look on his face, and he says, Fool, there ain't no {blacks} in the upper classes,' " Hathaway said as Gore roared with laughter.

The black cadets were in different companies at VMI and never roomed together, but they still had a sense of brotherhood beyond the ties that all freshmen form. Wilkerson remembers how with a glance across the courtyard they would steel each other as they endured the humiliations of the Rat Line. And on weekends, in a welcome respite from the din of barracks, they attended one of the two black churches in town.

"There was a lot of curiosity about us in the town, and in the black community, there was a lot of pride at finally seeing our faces in those uniforms," Valentine said.

Today, as they toured the barracks, the three marveled at a new set of pioneers.

"They look like rats," said Valentine, after spotting some female cadets. "And that's good."

Added Wilkerson: "There are two words on our class ring: Tradition' and Change.' That says it all. VMI changed for the better when it accepted African Americans. And I believe it is going to change again, and I believe for the better." CAPTION: With other graduates at a reunion, Philip Wilkerson, left, Harry Gore and Richard Valentine, who entered VMI in 1968, let out a cheer at barracks. CAPTION: Philip Wilkerson, with daughter Lois, talks to Richard Valentine and Harry Gore, right. They were among the first blacks at VMI.