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Camden woman was first Texas A&M female cadet company commander

Posted: March 3, 2015 5:06 p.m.
Updated: March 4, 2015 1:00 a.m.
Provided by Ruth Ann and Julian Burns/

Ruth Ann Burns (left) returned to Texas A&M for a reunion and met Allysa Michalke, who will become the first woman to lead the school’s entire cadet corps following the current semester.

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When Ruth Ann Schumacher, now Ruth Ann Burns of Camden, first joined the corps of cadets at Texas A&M University in 1974, she knew she had a challenge ahead of her. She was in the first group of female cadets at the prestigious university and was among 50 female classmates in the groundbreaking event.

An admitted “Army brat,” Burns said she was born in Texas and traveled throughout her youth, finally finishing high school in Gettysburg, Penn. She said an older brother inspired her to attend Texas A&M.

“My brother is two years ahead of me and he wanted to study wildlife and fishery science and he found A&M. I had never been there, never visited and didn’t know about the corps,” she said. “Up until 1963, it was all male and all military, then they let males in who did not seek a commission, then they let females in, then they let females live on campus and, finally, they let us into the corps.”

She said she started at A&M in 1973 and it literally took an act of Congress for women to be allowed into Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) units.

“Congress made the decision that any school that had ROTC must take women. So, the first year I went as a civilian student: fat, dumb, happy, wearing skirts and dresses, having dates to football games,” Burns said. “It was when I was a sophomore that they allowed women in the corps. They did not have a dorm for us. They did not have uniforms. This was a plan to gradually bring us on board. They gave us a military name tag with our civilian clothes. So, we were in the corps, but we were not yet visible to the 17,000 other students at A&M.”

Burns said there naturally was some resentment and discrimination from the male cadets.

“Ours was a women’s outfit, but since we didn’t have upperclassmen, we had male volunteers who said, ‘I’ll be the CO (commanding officer), I’ll be the first sergeant, I’ll be a platoon leader.’ They caught as much grief as we did because they had to go back to their units at night and it was not popular,” she said. “This was Texas, 1974, a state school that was primarily agricultural at the time. It was tough. We would do march-ins at football games and people who were interested in the corps, parents and girlfriends, would come early to see the march-in. They would come down to the bottom (of the grandstand) and just start screaming these vile insults. By the time we got around to the reviewing stand, we could have eaten nails. Our jaws were set. It’s kind of funny to see our expressions.”

Of the 50 that entered the corps when they were first allowed, Burns said only five made it through graduation. In her senior year, Burns became the commander of the female unit. After graduating in 1977, she entered the U.S. Army. Her college major had been economics and she was commissioned as a finance officer. She met her husband, Julian, at Fort Riley, Kan. And, in typical Army fashion, she served in various locations in the U.S. and overseas. She and Julian have now been married 37 years. He is the current chairman of Kershaw County Council.

Military service runs all through the Schumacher and Burns families, as her father was an Army colonel, Ruth Ann Burns had two brothers and a sister who served in the military, one son and his wife are currently in the Army and a daughter is a civilian employee for the U.S. Department of Defense.

She said her experiences at Texas A&M taught her valuable life lessons that have served her well.

“One main thing is perseverance, sticking with something against all odds, knowing what you wanted and this was an avenue to get it. Just hanging in there and realizing it wasn’t the perfect plan to bring us on board. We weren’t the perfect cadets. The camaraderie was incredible. If we didn’t have each other, we wouldn’t be,” she said. “We had tremendous leadership from the first male commander and advisors. They risked as much as we did, reputation wise and progression wise, because once they went back to their outfits their leadership opportunities dissolved. It was an incredible privilege, not knowing if we would survive.”

She said she’s proud to see the progress women have made at her alma mater.

“To go back 10 years, 20 years, 25 years, 30 years, 35 years and see the women today, it’s absolutely vindicating and validating,” she said. “They look sharp. They look confident. It’s just a completely different atmosphere.”

Now, 40 years later, Texas A&M has a female commander, not only for the women’s company, but for the entire ROTC program. Allysa Michalke will become the first woman to lead the entire corps at the end of the current semester. Burns recently went back to A&M for a reunion and met Michalke.

“To be there on campus during that week, celebrating 40 years of women in the corps, it was just outstanding. It’s a 2,400-member corps these days and there’s about 300 women,” Burns said. “She (Michalke) to me is the face of the corps today. I’m thrilled she was selected to be next year’s commander. She’s a small-town Texas girl. Her father put a basketball in her hands at age 4. So, she’s athletic, she’s competitive, she’s got her head straight. She was never handed anything. She always worked for everything she got.”

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