Virginia Tech museum finds rare cadet uniform, now fundraising to restore it

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) — A Virginia museum curator has a piece of history she says is one of a kind.

It's a 120-year-old uniform once worn by one of Virginia Tech's Commandant of Cadets. Originally found stuffed in a brown paper bag on a forgotten shelf, it now is in storage, desperate for care.

The museum wants to restore it, and is crowd-funding for more than $10,000 to make it happen.

In Virginia Tech's Newman Library, cadets of years past live on.

"We have seven Medal of Honor alum," said Museum Curator Samantha Riggins. "Most of these cases contain information about them."

Riggins curates the Corps of Cadets museum on the fourth floor of the library, a temporary space while a new museum is in the planning stages.

Here, she displays the ordinary and the extraordinary pieces of life as a cadet and beyond.

"I always say the Corps is the core of the university," she said.

It's a robust collection, but Riggins recently found an extremely rare piece, hidden in a display case she walked past every day.

"When I started doing some research and saw the old English lettering, then I began to understand how important it was," she recalled.

It's a uniform.

"There are plenty of holes," she says, displaying the fabric.

It's a cadet uniform made for only one year and the first to sport lettering for "Virginia Polytechnic Institute."

But there's more to the uniform than you'd be able to see.

"I had an 'Oh my God' moment when I knew that it was the man in a picture that we have," Riggins said.

The uniform belonged to Col. John Samuel Adolphus Johnson.

"Right there, wearing the exact uniform," Riggins said, pointing to a mustached man pictured in a group from the late 1800s.

Johnson was an 1898 graduate who went on to become the commandant of cadets and chair of the university’s Mechanical Arts Department for more than 25 years.

Colonel, Riggins said, was an honorary title, as Johnson was never in the military.

"Seeing it as it is and just knowing the importance behind it is awesome," said Cadet John Kendrick.

Senior Cadet Kendrick, The Regimental Historian Officer in Command, is eager to see this battered uniform restored.

"Just so the cadets can come by and see it and know that we've changed so much over the years, but we're still connected to the history that we've had," he said.

Riggins has those same hopes.

“The blue blouse is bonding, the blue uniform is bonding to the men and women in the corps," she said. "And so anything that’s historical for that. It helps them continue their bond, and they’re interested. Even if they’re not historians, they’re interested.”

They're now working to raise $13,00 for restoration work, Riggins has started a campaign on the university's crowdfunding page, JUMP, for $10,000 - the site limit.

"If something isn't done, it's just going to disintegrate," she said.

She hopes students, alumni and others will contribute so that a piece of cadet history lives on.

"I respect and try to honor them the person that wore it or the person that handled it or whatever you wanna say," she said. Because I do believe that there's a piece of that person in there."

The fundraising page for the uniform can be found on Virginia Tech's website, CrowdFund.vt.edu.