Starting Strong
Col. John C. Church Jr., first-year president of Valley Forge Military Academy & College, has bold plans for building upon the institution’s legacy of helping students excel
by Phil Gianficaro

Col. John C. Church Jr., U.S.M.C. Reserves, has had a productive summer. In his first few weeks as president of Valley Forge Military Academy & College (VFMAC), Col. Church received words of praise and thanks from two highly accomplished alumni, regarding the life-altering impact the institution had on them. Each of the two men excels on the “field”: one on the battlefield; the other on the football field. One is Marine Corps Lt. Col. Quintin Jones; the other is Arizona Cardinals’ Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

“Lt. Col. Jones, who graduated in 1995, was showing his wife and children VFMAC before going to Italy for an exchange tour,” Col. Church says. “He told me, ‘Colonel, without having attended VFMAC, I wouldn’t have gotten to the U.S. Naval Academy. VFMAC is the reason.’ 

“He was so appreciative of what VFMAC had done for him, and he thanked me for returning to keep the tradition going. This is an example of knowing VFMAC is doing things right.”

Fitzgerald spent a post-high-school year at VFMAC (2001-2002) to improve academically. Despite his immense football talents, major college programs stayed away, knowing his grades were not good enough to get him accepted into their schools.

At VFMAC, Fitzgerald learned to buckle down in the classroom, which, in turn, improved his grades. He earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he finished second in the voting for the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award—given to the most outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity—and was the third overall pick in the 2004 National Football League Draft.

“Larry was working out here with his trainer, getting ready for the NFL season,” Col. Church says. “He was so gracious, so grounded, so sincere. I spend a few moments talking with him, and he mentioned how much of a difference coming to VFMAC meant to him, how it helped him succeed.

“When I hear praise like that from former students who went on to do great things in life, I know this is a special place.”

The institution’s sterling reputation is one reason Col. Church returned in July, as the 15th president in the 88-year history of VFMAC, which he previously served as a professor of leadership and dean of the college.

‘Doing Something Right’
Col. Church is an active Marine Corps reservist. Prior to returning to VFMAC, he most recently served as an assistant professor at Immaculata University. He also taught at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the U.S. Naval War College and George Mason University, as well as Temple University. A doctoral student in mass media and communication at Temple, Col. Church earned an M.A. in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College, a M.A. in communication journalism and public affairs from American University in Washington, D.C., and a B.S. in political science from the U.S. Naval Academy.

As a combat engineer officer, Col. Church commanded Company C, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion in Lynchburg, Va., from where he led a deployment to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. With the 4th Civil Affairs Group, he served in Kosovo, completed two tours of duty in Iraq, served in Afghanistan, and taught civil affairs to soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Now, standing at the helm of VFMAC, Col. Church’s intention—his mission, as he sees it—is to oversee the development and preparation of students, young men at the high school and both male and female at the college. Simply put, he wants to make sure students succeed upon leaving the school’s Wayne campus, whether they choose a career in civilian life or in the military.

How will he know if his approach is working? What will be his measuring stick for success?

“I think I’ll know we’re successful … when three things happen,” Col. Church says. “One, when I look around and see everyone here pushing in the same direction; it’s my responsibility to articulate to them a way to move forward. That will take a while; people have to get used to me.

“The second aspect,” he continues, “is when I walk into a community and introduce myself, and someone says, ‘I’ve heard good things about VFMAC.’ Then I’ll know we’re communicating what we do in a positive manner. And third, when we have cadets, young people, coming in wanting to be students and cadets, and we have them well trained and wanting to be part of this. If those three aspects are happening, we’ll be doing something right for the students.

“I remind our team all the time: At VFMAC, the cadet or student is never cause for interruption to the routine; he or she is the sole reason for it.”

‘Where We Need to Be’

Among Col. Church’s first orders of business was the recent hiring of a new commandant of cadets, Army Col. (Ret.) Gerard Tertychny, Ed.D. Col. Tertychny is charged with the reception, character and general well-being of the corps, and of its discipline, social training and housing, as well as close order drill instruction, ceremonies and internal security and organization.

“Col. Tertychny is what we call the tactical and operational level—taking care of the cadets, making sure their safety and security is well administered and embraced,” Col. Church says. “He guides tactical officers, who are assigned to teach, advise and coach the cadets, and makes sure they’re engaging cadets in the most effective ways possible.”

Like Col. Church, Col. Tertychny was quite familiar with VFMAC prior to stepping into his new role; he served as a professor of military science from 2005 to 2009. During his time at VFMAC, he commissioned 94 lieutenants. The Early Commissioning Program enables cadets to become officers in just two years, as opposed to the traditional four years at most colleges and universities.

Col. Tertychny is a graduate of The Virginia Military Institute. Retired from the Special Forces, he has 28 years of decorated military service, including service in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as part of Operations Desert Shield and Storm.

“He’s a leader who has what it takes to drive and develop our corps of cadets to where it needs to be now,” Col. Church says. “And more importantly, he is poised to take us where we need to be in the future.”

Current students understand the value VFMAC provides, but what about prospective students? What types of questions should they be asking of themselves as they consider attending the institution?

“I met a young person recently who is considering coming to VFMAC,” Col. Church says. “I talked to the family, and I told the lad, ‘You’ll make the right decision if this is the right place for you.’

“I tell families up front that VFMAC may not be for everyone, but everyone should consider VFMAC. I tell them, ‘You’re here, so something brought you here. Try a semester. The worst thing is you’ll lose a few months and say it’s not for you.’ It’s better to do that than to not try it and always wonder if you should have tried.”

Valley Forge Military Academy & College
1001 Eagle Road
Wayne, PA 19087

Photograph by Jody Robinson