By NANCY SCHWERIN
CHARLESTON — Bobby Cox is not your typical college student. He’s young, ambitious and in charge.
It’s perfectly fitting then that he is the first Catholic in 20 years to hold the highest ranking cadet position, regimental commander, at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. His characteristic military demeanor, matter-of-fact and composed, hides his deep faith.
“He’s not wearing his faith on his sleeve, but he does carry it in his heart and that comes out,” said Father Jeffrey Kendall. “It certainly makes a difference.”
It’s one thing for a priest to address students, “it’s quite another thing when another student, a superior, stands up to talk about his faith,” said the priest and pastor of Christ the Divine Teacher at The Citadel.
“I try to make it a point to be seen; it’s good for the freshmen to see me,” said Cox, who at 21 is the leader of the 166 Catholic freshmen. He attends weekly Mass at the campus parish, serving as a eucharistic minister. The campus parish supports more than 400 Catholic students.
Father Kendall said that Cox’s positive attitude has been a bright light on the campus of the tough military college. Make that the “toughest military school in the nation,” according to Cox.
“I say that with confidence,” he explained. “We have the hardest plebe system, which is a source of pride.”
As the regimental commander responsible for the well-being of the more than 1,900 cadets on campus, he hopes to improve the honorable aspects of the school and the corps and to strictly enforce their honor code; each cadet vows to not lie, steal or cheat nor tolerate those who do.
As a junior, Cox went through the selection process for the regimental commander. Why was he chosen? “I was the best guy for it,” he said. “They need someone who is in the times, who is flexible and adaptable,” he explained.
His physical fitness, academic excellence and military training all added up to his becoming a great leader.
Cox also works with candidates of another kind. For three years he has sponsored fellow cadets in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. A class with which he is very familiar.
As a 16-year-old, Cox entered the RCIA program at St. Mary’s in Greenville, but as a young teen he had considered himself an atheist. Studying world history in high school opened religion to him, and Catholicism stuck out. He did some research, went to Mass and read the “Desert Fathers,” the writings of a group of early Christian monks. These religious men had become so discouraged with the state of Christianity that they went out into the desert to get back to the roots of their religion.
Cox said, “I found it amazing that they sacrificed their whole life for something they couldn’t see.”
From this the young man found faith and entered the Catholic church.
“It was the most important decision I ever made,” he said. “It was a good point in my life. Every Wednesday I looked forward to RCIA class.”
From atheist to Catholic, his spiritual depth has come a long way in a short time.
“He has a very mature spirituality,” said Father Kendall.
The cadet has found inspiration in the words of others elsewhere.
It was after reading the eye-opening novel The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy that he decided The Citadel was the place for him. An unlikely source of inspiration it would seem, but it was the camaraderie and brotherhood of the military college portrayed in the novel that drew Cox, who said he found the camaraderie he sought at The Citadel.
Cox’s mother and brother live in Traveler’s Rest, and his father lives in Duncan. He says his mom and brother ask questions from time to time, but no one else in the family has gone through RCIA.
The hard-working cadet hopes to bring another peer through RCIA this year, making time for the faith amid his other duties, which include being a member of the elite 61-member Summerall Guard. Two hundred seniors tried out for the rifle-carrying drill platoon. Fifty-one perform, and 10 are chosen as alternates. Cox is one of the 51 because he was among those who did the toughest and best drills.
So not only is Cox taking on the challenge of college, he’s doing it at the military school to which he earned an Army ROTC scholarship. There, he is not only among the top academic and physical performers, he is the man in charge, or rather the cadet in charge. He answers to the Commandant of Cadets, Brig. Gen. Emory Mace.
“Bobby J. Cox went through the eyes of several very small needles to be considered for regimental commander,” said Mace. “The final example of this was a 15-person selection board, which came up with a rank order of the top six cadets in the junior class at The Citadel. Rank order is based on academic achievement, demonstrated leadership, peer rating, physical training, board evaluation and performance in front of the board. My choice for Cadet Cox to become regimental commander was easy in that he came out number one in this process.”
Father Kendall said, “It is a very difficult position with lots of pressure. He’s handled it with enormous grace.”
Cox’s military career will continue for at least four years after school to pay his ROTC dues, and then the English major has considered several options: FBI, Secret Service, or English professor. But there’s still time for career decisions. Perhaps inspiration will come again with the written word.