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The meaning, history behind the Gold Stars

Jeff Kenney

Tradition recognized by Hollywood


May 7, 2021

There's a scene in the 1932 Universal Studios movie, "Tom Brown of Culver," in which largely indifferent (fictional) cadet Brown casually passes one of the gold stars, cast in bronze and embedded in the walkway near the entrance of the Legion Memorial Building.

Another cadet calls him out vehemently for failing to salute the star, and the ensuing altercation lands both cadets not only in trouble, but eventually in the boxing ring.

The scene, exaggerated as it is by Hollywood hyperbole, nonetheless points to a legitimate truism: of the many longstanding traditions that continue to mark daily life at Culver Academies, one of the oldest – and certainly one of the most hallowed – is that of honoring the school's World War I Gold Star graduates in a visible, physical manner upon entering the storied Legion Building.

The earliest reference to the tradition appears in the November, 1924, edition of The Builder, a predecessor to today's Culver Alumni Magazine.

"By vote of the Corps of Cadets, it is now the custom for each officer and cadet to pause a moment as he reaches one of these stars and raise his hand in salute to the memory of the Gold Star Men of Culver. Civilians pause and raise the headdress. Bodies of troops are always marched by the building at attention. The sentry post which has been established between these two stars is the Post of Honor to which the cadet who stands the best inspection at Guard Mount is assigned."


Saluting the Gold Stars in front of the Legion Memorial Building.


In the ensuing years, the practice of a cadet sentry marching between the gold stars, similar to the Sentinels at Arlington National Cemetery, fell by the wayside, but the gold star entryway "pause" remains. For the non-cadet and non-military visiting the building, a pause with one's hand over the heart or in some brief gesture of respect has become the norm.

Central to the significance of the custom is the story behind the Legion Memorial Building itself.

Within a year of the end of World War I in 1918, the Culver family had laid the cornerstone for a building commemorating the voluminous contribution to the war effort by Culver graduates, which included some 3,500 serving, a remarkably large percentage of the eligible body of Culver alumni.

Among these, a total of 86 lost their lives in the conflict, and, as was commemorated during the 2018-2019 school year at Culver, the impact of the war on so many lives helped shape the physical structure of the campus immeasurably.

Besides the construction of Argonne-Chateau Thierry Barracks in 1919, named for the battle during which the largest number of Culver graduates lost their lives, Pershing Walk was also established to honor the December, 1922 visit of Gen. John Pershing, Commander of the Allied Armies during World War I, to the Culver campus.

But Legion Memorial Building itself was the most significant campus space to honor those who served. Modeled after the 15th century Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, England, virtually every aspect of the building conveys meaning related to Culver graduates' service and Culver's mission and values.


Laying the cornerstone for the Legion Memorial Building in 1919.


Legion Memorial's dedication ceremony, in November, 1924, included Marine Corps Commandant Gen. John Lejeune, Admiral Rodman of the Navy, and Gen. Omar Bundy of the Army, among other notables and dignitaries in attendance. That ceremony also set the template for another cherished and moving (ongoing) Culver tradition: its annual Veterans Day ceremony each November.

Although the Legion Building's original Gold Star Room itself is no more, the 86 Gold Star Culver graduates of World War I continue to be visibly honored by name within the Great Hall, and just as nearly a century earlier, those names continue to be commemorated each time a member of the student, faculty, or staff body, or a guest, pauses at one of the gold stars.

Back in the world of Tom Brown in 1932, the senior cadet officer in the movie asks cadet Brown about the conflict at the Legion Building.

"What's the idea about starting that rough stuff today?"

Tom Brown, whose Culver journey through the course of the film may mirror that of many real-life Culver students who come to appreciate and internalize the practice and the deeper implications of service it symbolizes, answers honestly:

"I didn't understand about the Gold Star, sir."


The original, detailed description of the dedication of the Legion Memorial Building in 1924 in the pages of The Builder may be found on here on Culver's Digital Vault.

A video tour of the World War I-related sites on Culver's campus, including the Legion Memorial Building, may be viewed here.

A short video history of Culver's contributions to World War I is available here.

Jeff Kenney is the director and historian for the Culver Academies Museum. 

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