Celebrating the Life of Brig. Gen. N. Michael Bissell, VWIL’s first Commandant of Cadets

February 8, 2019

Brigadier General Norman Michael Bissell, first commandant of cadets for the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) at Mary Baldwin University, passed away on February 7. He was 80.

VWIL was first established in 1995, and Bissell became part-time acting commandant of cadets, while also serving at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), transitioning to full-time commandant of cadets in May 1999. He retired in October 2013, having earned the first title of commandant emeritus in the university’s history.

“The Mary Baldwin family remembers and honors Gen. Bissell as a paragon of service, leadership, and respect,” said MBU President Pamela R. Fox. “From the very beginning, he was absolutely critical to the establishment and growth of the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin. His legacy can be found in the success of the VWIL corps today and in the achievements of each and every one of its alumnae.”

Bissell’s sense of duty and respect served as perhaps the greatest influence upon his cadets, many of whom touted those characteristics as among the greatest gifts Mary Baldwin offered them.

“He and [Founding Director of VWIL] Dr. [Brenda] Bryant were mentors for us,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Trimble Spitzer ’99, division director of the reproductive endocrinology and infertility division at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Spitzer was among the inaugural VWIL graduates. “He was not just a leader and a father figure, he was a mentor. And in every aspect of our careers, I think that all of us in the military can attribute our success in some way to him.”

His care for the future of those under his charge was a defining characteristic to many of the earliest VWIL cadets — like Spitzer —  who entered Mary Baldwin in 1995. Praise for Bissell was immediate and widespread among MBU alumni, along with ready acknowledgments of the role he played in so many lives.

“He’s probably the single biggest influencer of my career,” said Lt. Col. Sherri Sharpe ’99. “He was the standard bearer for respect and professionalism and how to treat other people. My own leadership is modeled after what he demonstrated for us. He had such respect for us and wanted us to succeed; he was invested in every one of us.”

“He taught us the right way to do things, the right way to be a leader,” Karen Bailey-Chapman ’99 agreed.

Some of these habits — both serious and lighthearted — have remained with these former cadets for more than 20 years into their careers.

“I spent four years around him and I’ve spent 20 years away, but to this day I can’t walk on grass,” Sharpe laughed. “Because I hear him in my head, I see his face. He would be so disappointed in me if I walk on this grass. I’m a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, and I can’t walk on the grass, I use the sidewalk.”

Bailey-Chapman brings Bissell’s lessons on punctuality to her civilian work as senior vice president for political affairs for the American Beverage Association.

“All my staff at work know,” she said, “that if you’re not five minutes early you’re late.”

Brig. Gen. N. Michael Bissell with VWIL graduates Karen Bailey-Chapman ’99 (left) and Kristy Wheeler '01 (right).

Bissell’s tenure as commandant of cadets resulted in the growth of the VWIL program from a visionary idea to a thriving cadet corps — the only all-women corps in the nation — that fosters both military and civilian leaders of global citizenship. With a first VWIL class of 40 young women, Bissell’s efforts helped expand the program to currently include over 400 alumnae, many of whom serve as military officers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the world.

“General Bissell continues to have a lasting and positive impact on our VWIL community, including over 400 alumnae and 100 current cadets,” said Brig. Gen. Terry Djuric (U.S. Air Force, Retired), VWIL commandant. “The general was a wonderful and generous mentor to me as I followed him in the commandant role for this amazing corps.”

Bissell also played a crucial part in linking VWIL with the legacy of the Staunton Military Academy (SMA), and he was instrumental in the creation of the SMA-VWIL Museum. As a result of his efforts, Bissell was named an honorary member of the SMA Alumni Association, and the SMA flag is now carried in the VWIL Color Guard.

“It was tremendous how the relationships he fostered with SMA have helped cement VWIL’s place in history and link it to an even deeper history,” said Sharpe.

Bissell also helped unite the Heifetz International Music Institute with Staunton and Mary Baldwin.  After his retirement from Mary Baldwin, Bissell remained integral in supporting the corps while also serving as liaison with SMA alumni and the VWIL Board of Visitors.

VWIL held a unique place in Bissell’s accomplished career. When asked in 2007 of his experience as commandant, he said: “I can honestly say that VWIL is the best leadership program for the development of women leaders that I have ever observed. I am so fortunate to have this opportunity. The young women who are graduating are among the finest and are standing out among their peers in the military and civilian sector.”

Bissell speaks at the nULL Induction Ceremony in 2010 (left), and salutes the VWIL corps during his retirement parade in 2013.

Bissell had a distinguished 26-year career in the U.S. Army, serving two tours in Vietnam as a combat helicopter pilot, where he was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Air Medal with V device and 24 oak leaf clusters. After his retirement from the Army in 1987, he became program manager for the Army’s Comanche stealth helicopter for the Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft Team. He returned to VMI as commandant of cadets in 1990, and served as commandant of cadets for VWIL from 1995 until his retirement in 2013. In May 2007, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Aviation Hall of Fame in Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Bissell graduated from VMI, where he holds the distinction of being one of the institute’s most decorated alumni, in 1961 and from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College. He also earned an MA from the University of Missouri.

On Tuesday, February 12, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., there will be a visitation at Pierce Funeral Home (9609 Center Street, Manassas, Va.).

There will be a Memorial Service on Wednesday, February 13, at 10:30 a.m. at Holy Trinity Church (8213 Linton Hall Road, Gainesville, Va.). FA reception will follow the memorial service at Regency Country Club (15351 Championship Drive, Haymarket, Va.).

MBU will share burial service details when available.