MILLEDGEVILLE -- Lackluster grades nearly cost retired Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV his appointment to West Point.
Georgia's U.S. senators thought he wasn't academically qualified, but Caldwell's congressman from Columbus nominated him for the United States Military Academy.
"(Rep.) Jack Brinkley took a risk with me," Caldwell said Thursday, on the eve of assuming the helm of Georgia Military College. "He saw in me an intense desire to serve in the military."
The gamble paid off. Caldwell graduated second in his class and the No. 1 military cadet.
Now the 59-year-old wants to hoist others up to reach their goals.
As a boy, he had set his sights on West Point when his father taught there on the west bank of New York's Hudson River.
He followed in the boot steps of his father and grandfather, who graduated from that prestigious school on the grounds of the nation's oldest continuously occupied military post.
All three Caldwells completed more than three decades in the U.S. Army, with the youngest officially retiring Friday with 37 years and multiple deployments.
In February, he was selected as GMC's 21st president to succeed retired Maj. Gen. Peter J. Boylan, but his orders only came through last week.
"I couldn't in good faith set up my office," the Columbus native said while still unpacking in his new office.
He unwrapped an antiquated Afghan rifle presented in 2011 upon relinquishing command of the NATO Training Mission and Combined Security Transition in Afghanistan. An Airborne 504 Devils insignia is attached to the butt end of the weapon.
Caldwell dug deeper into a chest-high box to find another long gun that belonged to his father -- also a three-star general, who died last spring.
"This weapon was captured by my dad's unit in Vietnam," he said while removing the brown packing paper. "He gave it to me 10 to 15 years ago and I've used it in my office ever since."
Retirement ushers return to military academia
Caldwell might not have physically settled, but in recent months he has mentally entrenched himself in the operation of the junior college and preparatory middle and high schools.
"His level of comfort in the transition ought to be very good, by now," said Col. Fred Van Horn, GMC's executive president, who served as interim president when Boylan assumed president emeritus duties. "He's had a chance to see one of every problem we deal with, if not more, and in some cases solve it."
Van Horn praises his new boss' expertise in building positive relationships.
"The single, most telling virtue he displays, day-in and day-out, is genuine humility. ... There's an absence of arrogance," he said. "He listens, asks intuitive questions and genuinely establishes contact with people he sits across from."
While visiting a new class of non-traditional junior college students, Caldwell was moved by their desire to get a college education, some after spending years raising children.
Fostering that quest for a better future is why the career military man enlisted in education, instead of seeking more lucrative jobs. Also waiting to be hung on the office wall is Caldwell's certificate from his days as a White House fellow serving President George H.W. Bush.
A framed 2006 front page of the USA Today shows Caldwell briefing the world of the "takedown" of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A picture of the al-Qaida leader's lifeless body was printed next to the photograph of Caldwell at the podium, serving as the Iraq spokesman of the multinational force.
Numerous mementos serve as a museum-quality resume of Caldwell's days commanding the Fifth Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
It was his days leading the paratroopers of the "All American Division" that presented his biggest challenge -- Hurricane Katrina relief.
Watching the storm coverage with his wife Stephanie, Caldwell was chomping to put his division into service. Without direct orders, he called 5,000 troops to be ready and initiated the "N-hour deployment sequence."
Days later, once jurisdiction issues were settled, Caldwell heard President George W. Bush announce in a live briefing that he had just called up the 82nd.
By the time the official call came 10 minutes later, his troops were already on the move and in the air seven hours later.
"We called it 'All Americans' helping Americans," he recalled.
On the ground in New Orleans, Caldwell inquired about his mission. The commander of Joint Task Force Katrina abruptly ordered, "I want you to fix all that (expletive)," as the officer made a wide sweep of his arm across the decimated landscape.
Just last week, Caldwell's experience played out in show-and-tell in his youngest son's fifth-grade class at Creekside Elementary.
Hudson Caldwell's dad asked the youngsters to guess where the soldiers slept or used the bathroom.
No one imagined the Army was sleeping under the stars or making toilets out of 55 gallon drums and burning off the contents with gasoline.
It was a month of sacrifice and service Caldwell will never forget.
"The idea we could do something at home for the American people was so gratifying to us," he said.
Challenges of handling military, personal life
Aside from Katrina, the biggest challenge of his life has been balancing military service and his personal life.
His fervor overran his family life. His all-consuming career cost him his first marriage -- a mistake he freely shares with young officers, and vows to never repeat.
He found love again back home in Columbus, where Stephanie Hudson grew up and became associate pastor of St. Paul United Methodist, his family's church.
After months of the Caldwells' attempts at match-making, the reluctant couple finally agreed to a first date during Christmas time in 1997. They married the next summer.
He credits his wife with fulfilling and balancing his life.
"I'm thankful God put her in my life," he said. "I love her so much, I wanted to spend time with her."
Retirement reunites them after Caldwell spent a fifth of their 15-year marriage overseas.
Their two older children, Will and Anna are enrolled in GMC.
"No pressure there," Caldwell said of William B. Caldwell V's option to continue the family's military pedigree, already more than 100 years strong.
Meanwhile, the new president is looking ahead to GMC's 150th anniversary in 2029.
A two-day retreat this month will focus on the mission going forward.
He also looks back to retired Congressman Brinkley, and has sent him a thank you note with each military milestone.
The most recent package included the GMC's Cadence magazine with the new president on the cover.
To encourage the 7,000 students across several Georgia campuses, he believes in the PIE approach, stressing passion, initiative and enthusiasm.
"People enjoy being around people who are enthusiastic," he said.
Caldwell is eager to begin his new assignment.
"I get to work with young men and women every day of the week who are looking to change their lives, and the fact that I can be a part of that is really exciting."
Liz Fabian, Telegraph staff writer, 912-744-4303.