The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wes Moore tried to run away from military school. It changed his life instead.

Moore, heavily favored to become Maryland’s first Black governor, was transformed by Valley Forge Military Academy — a place he begged his mother not to send him

A page from the 1998 Valley Forge Military Academy and College yearbook featuring a photograph of Wes Moore standing in front of five other cadets. (Caroline Gutman for The Washington Post)
17 min

At midnight, two hours after the mournful sound of taps signaled the end of another grueling day at Valley Forge Military Academy, Wes Moore climbed out of his metal bunk bed, slung a packed bag over his shoulder and crept out of Wheeler Hall.

He passed the academy’s elegant old brick buildings and headed toward a thicket of woods — the threshold to freedom, he thought. Yet as he walked deeper into the buffer of trees that separated the campus from the affluent residential neighborhoods of Wayne, Pa., he realized the directions he held in his hand that night in 1991 were useless; he was lost.

He slumped down on a rock and began to cry. He was 12, and this had been his fifth attempt at running away in less than a week.

He wanted desperately to go home to the Bronx, where his mother had taken him and his two sisters to live with her parents after his father’s death a decade earlier.

“When I entered the school, I was very angry. … I felt very alone” recalled Moore, now 44 and seeking to become Maryland’s first Black governor.

The portrait of Moore’s adolescent despair will be familiar to readers of “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” which shifts between the arc of Moore’s early life and that of a Black Baltimore teenager of the same name who winds up in prison for the murder of an off-duty police officer. The 2010 book, which was boosted to the bestseller lists by Oprah Winfrey, is a meditation on the power of personal choices, family circumstances and economic inequities that can separate those who falter from those who succeed.

For Moore, a political newcomer who has made his origin story a centerpiece of his campaign against Republican Dan Cox, perhaps no period of his life was more formative than his seven years at Valley Forge Military Academy and College.

Between 1991 and 1998, Moore — one of just a handful of Black students on the all-male campus — would rise from a miserable middle school plebe to a widely admired first captain in command of the roughly 800 cadets at the academy and junior college. He would go on to become a Rhodes Scholar, White House fellow, investment banker, Army paratrooper and officer in Afghanistan, and chief executive for one of the nation’s largest poverty-fighting nonprofits before winning Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination earlier this year in his first bid for elective office.

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In interviews with more than a dozen former classmates, friends, teachers and family members, it is clear that Moore’s leadership abilities — and his political ambitions — were greatly shaped at Valley Forge. Many of his classmates said they expected him to become the nation’s first Black president long before any of them had heard of Barack Obama.

“We already knew he was something special back then. You could just tell,” said Army Col. David Arnel, who said his interactions with Moore influenced his military career. “He was like Superman.”

Moore himself was already thinking about a future in politics when he gave a 1998 interview to the Palm Beach Post for a story about life at military schools.

“Every time I go back to New York,” Moore told the Florida newspaper, “I see my old neighborhood deteriorating, and I ask myself, ‘What can I do about it?’ Politics is where the power is to do something about it.”

‘Making excuses’

On an April evening in 1982, Moore’s father, William Westley Moore Jr. — also known as Wes — returned to the family home in Takoma Park, Md., after signing off as an evening radio news anchor for what then was WMAL-AM (630). He had been battling a sore throat all day.

Just after dawn, he awakened his wife, Joy, to go to the hospital. Unable to make sense of their patient’s symptoms, doctors discharged him late that afternoon with advice that he get some rest, his son writes in “The Other Wes Moore.” A few hours later, 3-year-old Wes watched as his father crashed to the floor in the upstairs hallway outside his son’s bedroom.

By 9:30 that night, he was dead, a victim of epiglottitis, a treatable, rare virus that causes the epiglottis — cartilage that protects the larynx and aids swallowing — to swell and shut down, covering the air passages to the lungs.

Joy Moore, who had met her husband as a news assistant at the radio station, no longer felt safe alone in the house with Wes and his sisters, Nikki and Shani, and decided to move in with her parents in the East Bronx. James Thomas, a retired Dutch Reform minister, and his wife, Winell, a retired schoolteacher, were of Jamaican descent, part of a tightknit clan that reached to the island.

Moore’s grandparents were loving but strict, forbidding Moore to leave home with chores undone, Justin Brandon, a close childhood friend, recalled about the pair.

At the time the city was swept up in the crack epidemic. Addicts clustered on street corners and in abandoned houses, sometimes aggressive. Crime shot up. The high school in Moore’s neighborhood became one of the first in the city to employ metal detectors, Joy Moore recalled. She decided to send Wes to grade school at Riverdale Country School, a tony private school in the wealthy Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, paying for it by working several jobs and relying on the school to accept delayed payments.

It was as a student at Riverdale, Moore writes, that he struggled for a sense of belonging as he moved back and forth between the mostly minority working-class neighborhood where he lived, played basketball and “code-switched” to street slang and the well-ordered, overwhelmingly White upper-class world of school.

From the outside, however, Moore appeared to belong as much as anyone at Riverdale, according to his mother and Brandon, who attended the school with him. In fact, Joy Moore, now 72, worried that his classwork was taking a back seat.

“I didn’t feel he was giving himself a chance to realize his potential because he was so social, and everybody wanted to be Wes’s friend,” said Joy, who lives in Pasadena, Md. Wes was content to get Cs, lacked motivation and was a prankster, once setting off a smoke bomb in the school.

His mother worried that school officials would be less likely to tolerate such behavior from him than from his rich, White classmates. Meanwhile, Wes said he often felt his poor performance and antics were too well tolerated, partly because he was Black, fatherless and from a poorer neighborhood, even though both of his parents were college graduates.

“I didn’t have to make excuses for myself because I had people who were making excuses for me,” he said. “ … I think their interpretation of caring for me was lowering their expectations.”

Then he got picked up by a police officer in the Bronx for spraying graffiti on the outside wall of a bar with a delinquent pal. One evening in 1991, the dean of Riverdale called Joy to schedule a conference to discuss her son’s poor grades and behavior. At the time, Wes was upstairs picking on his younger sister, Shani, who wound up with a bloody lip.

Joy had had enough. She confronted Wes and, for the first time, he writes in his book, struck him across the face.

His mother learned about Valley Forge from a family friend who had raved about what the discipline had done for her son.

Joy decided to send her son to the military school, too. “I was determined that I would not lose him to the streets,” she said, before pausing fleetingly.

“Or mediocrity.”

‘You have to stay there’

As Moore wept in the woods, he heard the rustling of brush behind him and turned around to see older cadets emerge from the darkness, laughing raucously. His squad leader — who Moore now realized had faked sympathy as he wrote him “directions” to the train station — was among the amused.

Moore had been hazed.

Contact with family was forbidden during the roughly two months of the harsh training period known as the plebe system, but the tactical officer charged with Moore’s fate that night made an exception. Wes begged his mother on the phone to let him come home, promising model behavior.

“That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made — to send him away, to say you have to stay there,” recalled Joy, whose parents had mortgaged their house to help her pay the tuition. “But I was also hoping that it would teach him about choices. You know, you can choose to do well, then you have a choice. … If you want to squander this opportunity, then you won’t have a choice.”

As Wes pleaded, he noticed a towering young Black man in a khaki uniform peering down at him through glasses. Ty Hill, a company commander at Valley Forge as a junior college freshman, had been asked by Joy during a campus tour to look out for her son. In that moment, he saw a small, sad and frustrated boy.

“I have never known an angry Wes,” said Hill, 53, who is now a senior manager for Vanguard Group in King of Prussia, Pa., after years of active-duty service as an Army officer. “Whatever anger he may have come there with must have quickly dissipated.”

Despite whatever he was feeling inside, around campus Moore was exceedingly friendly, ready with a wide, toothy smile, Hill said. “He had an appeal that made him impossible not to like.”

The two would talk over burgers or slices of pizza at the Boodle Shop, the campus diner and store, he said. Although he was a decade older, Hill said he often felt like the mentoring role was reversed.

Moore pushed him to explain how he had become a cadet captain. “He knew even then that you need to think about stuff, that you need to have a plan to get where you’re going,” Hill said.

While Hill said he’d failed several times to pass the tests to get the “cap shield” — a badge on the uniform hat that signaled promotion to cadet — Moore aced the tests on the first try.

Plebes appeared before what they called “the murder board,” a panel consisting of senior leaders who barked questions that required lengthy recitations of the school’s history, honor code and much more.

By that point, the plebes had already been put under great pressure by the older cadets, who forced them to perform calisthenics at all hours. One of the most memorable exercises was called “the Nauseator,” which required the plebes to put their foreheads on their rifle barrels and spin around them in tight circles before climbing a hill, inevitably falling back with dizziness.

The cadets were young and male, Hill said, “and we were sadistic,” especially after most of the campus staff went home in the evening.

Aside from teaching the plebes how to handle their weapons and march flawlessly in parade formation, the military officials at the school required them to “square” their meals — eating with utensils and arms perpetually at 90-degree angles lest an officer knock on the table, requiring everyone to stop eating and go hungry.

Moore gradually took to the military academy’s rigid rules and high expectations. He described obtaining the coveted cap shield as a key pivot point.

“It was the first time I experienced that, where you had to go earn everything,” he said. “Nothing’s going to be given to you.”

To move up the ranks at Valley Forge, cadets were expected to show consistency in their habits, work ethic, attitude and behavior toward others. Moore excelled at steadiness.

He was captain of the basketball team, played football, ran track and wrestled, worked as editor in chief of the campus newspaper, served three times as class president and was a regular presence on the dean’s list.

Mihir Patel, who was a freshman in the junior college when Moore was a sophomore and first captain, watched as Moore — accountable for his cadets as well as his schoolwork — put a cold washcloth on his face to stay awake during class.

“I remember thinking he was human and he did get tired,” said Patel, who owns a logistics supply company in Gaithersburg, Md. “It was so rare to see a moment of weakness.”

Arnel recalled Moore’s unusual maturity when he intervened as first captain in a conflict between Arnel and the company he was commanding. Arnel’s underlings, egged on by their ousted former leader, had begun circulating a petition to get rid of him. Moore moved decisively to transfer Arnel’s nemesis.

“He could have just told me to work it out,” Arnel said. “Lots of leaders want to pass the buck.”

Moore was known on campus as a powerful speaker, tasked as first captain with addressing the student body during weekday vespers in the cavernous chapel with its stained-glass windows depicting historical military scenes.

Retired Lt. Col. Michael Murnane, Moore’s American history and social studies teacher toward the end of high school, coached Moore as he practiced his speech about the U.S. Constitution for an American Legion oratorical contest. Moore later delivered the speech, which won first place in the state, at the chapel pulpit.

“I am proud to be an American because I understand just what my ancestors had to go through in order for me to be called American,” he said in part. “It took initiative, it took courage, and it took knowledge … knowledge of the same document that originally ‘we’ were not included in, the Constitution.”

“Wes stood out not only as a leader or as someone who can speak, but he stood out as a Black man in a mainly White military environment,” Murnane said.

He remembers Moore talking excitedly about Colin Powell, a Black four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, after he read Powell’s “My American Journey,” published in 1995. Like Moore, Powell had Jamaican ancestry and spent his childhood years in the Bronx.

“Powell, in his pragmatic way, wanted what I wanted,” Moore later wrote. “A fair shot. … A code that would instill discipline, restrain passion and order his steps. A way to change the world without unleashing the whirlwind.”

From the viewpoint of many of his White classmates, Moore’s race was not an obstacle. In recent years, Valley Forge has been struggling like other military colleges with falling enrollment and revenue, as well as allegations of mismanagement and violent hazing incidents, which its leadership has strongly denied.

In the 1990s, the institution was forward-thinking on race, Hill said. He remembers the military staff gathering cadets to voice their feelings about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the officers who’d beaten Black motorist Rodney King.

Moore also had the support and admiration of the high-ranking White officials there, including the academy’s then-president, Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., a former U.S. Naval Academy superintendent who later dedicated a cadet officer’s lounge to Moore in the basement of the administration building.

“There was no Black or White. Everybody had the same opportunities,” said Alistair Crosbie, a Valley Forge graduate who has remained in contact with Moore. (Like several alumni interviewed, Crosbie is a White Republican who believes Moore will govern primarily as a centrist despite the expensive liberal proposals — such as baby bonds and a high school year of service — that are part of Moore’s agenda.)

But Moore said he recalls some cadets at Valley Forge using racial slurs, including one of his cadet commanders who singled out other cadets as “sand n------” during training.

“You know, what was really more hurtful about it was … the ones who would never stand up” to object, he said.

Moore made such an impression on his peers, Murnane and others said, that they openly spoke about him becoming the first Black U.S. president. But only one of those interviewed said they recalled Moore talking about a career in politics while at Valley Forge.

Douglas Bennett, who was second captain when Moore was third captain at the junior college, said that over meals at the mess hall, he and Moore “would have discussions about how we both wanted to be president of the United States.”

At the time, the school was “almost like a laboratory for politics,” where teenage leaders held a great deal of power — accountable to the school command for underlings and largely determining the fate of their peers who violated the rules — said Bennett, who is active in Republican politics in Massachusetts.

As a cadet officer, Moore interacted with powerful visitors to the campus, including former presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, Sen. John McCain and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a Valley Forge graduate and commander of the Persian Gulf War, said Joy Moore, who keeps portraits of the encounters on the walls of her den.

To manage their reports, the cadet officers would employ “retail politics,” visiting plebes and cadets in their dorms to check in on them, Bennett said.

“I learned a lot about how to move people,” Moore said. “I learned a lot about staying mission-focused. I learned a lot about what it means to lead under challenging circumstances and what it means to lead both friends and foes.”

Justin Flood, who was in eighth grade when Moore was third captain, said Moore was the only cadet officer who paid regular visits to the middle school.

“He seemed genuinely interested in how I was doing,” said Flood, who works in real estate in Media, Pa. “The fact that he made a point just to come down, that tells you something. … We were the low men on the totem pole.”

In early May 1998, Moore was at the peak — about to graduate from Valley Forge with an associate’s degree in liberal arts and continue his education at Johns Hopkins University.

About 2,000 cadets, relatives and staff jammed the pews in the campus chapel for the commencement, as the 19-year-old first captain took the podium to deliver his final speech.

In the audience, seated with her parents and two daughters, Joy watched her son speak, ramrod straight in his blue uniform festooned with badges and medals.

She could barely contain her pride. Wes had begged to leave this place; Joy had made him stay.

“I made the right decision,” she thought.

2022 Maryland Gubernatorial Election: What to know

Races to watch: Wes Moore is projected to become Maryland’s first Black governor. In other historic races, Anthony G. Brown declares victory as Maryland’s first Black attorney, and Aruna Miller will be the state’s first immigrant and first woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor.

Key issues: Maryland’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana is among key issues that residents care about. Here’s what to know about Maryland’s recreational marijuana law.

What’s at stake: Why are midterm elections important? Democrats could dominate all branches of government if they prevail in November, and Republicans hope to keep a seat at the table.