Much has changed in Bordentown City since the Bordentown Military Institute closed its doors for good in 1973, nearly 100 years after it opened.The Bordentown campus was left empty for several years before the buildings were torn down or repurposed. The site of the Old Main building was replaced with Kings Gate condominiums; the old homes used as dormitories are now private residences or businesses. Only a tiny corner of BMI still remains on Park Street: a square of land designated as a mini-park, located at what used to be the entrance to the Old Main building on campus.
Now, the space features a cadet statue as a tribute to the school. Every two years, BMI alumni gather in town and march down Farnsworth Avenue, just as they used to when they were students at the school. These days, they end their march at that special memorial.
The BMI Alumni Association has organized the biennial reunions since the late 1980s, with the next reunion scheduled for Oct. 18. It’s a time when alumni can share the stories of their experiences at the military school, reconnect with old classmates, and, most importantly, keep the memory of the school alive. BMI left a lasting impression on its alumni, one that most alumni recall with fond, clear memories of the teachers, the campus, the athletics, and the town.BMI was renowned for its athletics, primarily football, and attracted students from across the country. The school was founded in 1881. In 1972, it merged with Lenox School, moving its operations to Massachusetts. The school closed the following year. Local residents followed thesports at BMI, knowing they’d often see the school’s top athletes find success at the college or professional level.
On Sundays, it was common to see cadets marching down the city streets, each to his respective house of worship. Daily at 6 a.m., the sounds of “Reveille” echoed throughout the sprawling campus, rousing the BMI cadets, who woke to brush their teeth, straighten their uniforms and attend the military formations before breakfast in the mess hall and a day full of academic study, military training and athletics. Life at the military school was strict, and for some cadets, took some getting used to. “It was a culture shock,” recalled Bordentown native Joseph Platt, who spent his sophomore year in 1972 at BMI. Cadets were required to have their shoes and brass shined, their heads shaved, and their uniforms neat. If the rules weren’t followed, there were no detentions. There were penalty tours. One penalty tour lasted one hour—one hour a cadet spent carrying a rifle and marching outside Old Main.
While BMI drew students from around the country, it also had its share of students from the immediate area. Bordentown City deputy mayor Jim Lynch spent three years as a student at BMI, finishing his senior year at the Hun School of Princeton after BMI closed.Lynch had grown up in Bordentown hearing his father talk about BMI and the football stars it graduated. “It was always decided I would go there, unbeknownst to me,” he said. Lynch’s father passed away when he was only 12, but somehow his mother found a way to send him to BMI after he graduated from St. Mary School. He didn’t realize it during his years there, but BMI instilled in him the qualities that changed the rest of his life, Lynch said.
“Leadership, character building, honesty, trust, integrity,” he recited, “that’s what BMI taught. They stressed that. And when you take that into your private life, it gives you a significant advantage as you watch other people who didn’t have that. I’m very fortunate to have that.”Because Lynch and Platt both lived with their families in Bordentown, they had more freedom than the cadets who lived on campus, who also had strict room inspections and bed times. Just as in the military, students at BMI would rise through the ranks. For Lynch, who left school as a staff sergeant, said ascending in rank over the years allowed him to feel more comfortable at the school, adopting a leadership role and enjoying the privileges that came with it.
Another local alumnus is former Trenton mayor Doug Palmer, who graduated in 1969. While it wasn’t his decision initially to attend the school—the cadets joked that BMI actually stood for “because mother insisted”—he quickly fell into the routine and found he took quite well to the military school lifestyle. To this day, the school’s motto—“Rather be than seem”—is one of the two quotes he remembers most often in his daily life. “I just loved the school, and I got into that military lifestyle,” he said. “I had two pairs of shoes that I always had spit shined and polished, and my brass was always excellent.”* * *Some of the stories alumni tell now happened more than 50 years ago. But the memories of a military lifestyle, school pride and athletic triumphs pour out of former BMI students as if those events happened just yesterday. And every alumnus has those special memories of the school and the town. For Palmer, it was his role as part of the football and baseball teams, traveling to compete and earn impressive wins against college competition.The team would travel on weekends for games, sometimes arriving home late on Saturday nights, when he’d retreat back to his room in the white house dormitory and wait for the tapping of footsteps and knocks on the door from his peers, eager to hear the details of the games. “They’d bring hoagies, 7-Up, potato chips, to hear stories about the game and what happened,” said Palmer, recalling how cadets would sneak out in their civilian clothes to get food and snacks in town.For NFL Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little, it’s memories of his football games and of the town itself: his march to the Episcopalian church on Sundays or a walk to an eatery in town for a slice of pizza. In particular he recalled a girl he was crazy about from Bordentown Regional High School. Little, who graduated from BMI in 1963, came back to Bordentown in 2010 for a special dedication ceremony for the BMI cadet statue.“It was incredible to come back to that reception,” he recalled, “to ride down the street in a convertible car, with people hollering and screaming on Main Street, all holding their banners and their signs…it was very emotional for me.”Little had traveled to Bordentown for his senior and post graduate year of school thanks to the efforts of his high school coach, who didn’t want to see Little waste his potential in New Haven, Connecticut. Little graduated from BMI with more than 40 scholarship offers, eventually settling on Syracuse University. He went on to play for the Denver Broncos from 1967-75 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010. If there’s one thing BMI alumni say they want most, it’s to make sure the school is never forgotten.Some of the more well-known pieces of Bordentown history, Lynch noted, pale in comparison to the effect of BMI’s nearly 100-year tenure in the city. Lynch and Platt hope to eventually have a collection of BMI memorabilia— plaques, medals, uniforms and other mementos—displayed in town. “The dream of the alumni is to keep this school alive…it would be terrible to see the school lost in history,” Platt said.
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