It has been over five years since Levi Gottsponer graduated from St. John’s Military School with the 125th Corps of Cadets, and even though life has taken him to Colorado and eventually back home to Arkansas, he has remained close with his fellow brothers and the school.
“I was just hanging out with one of the cadets from my Corps last week,” said Gottsponer. “All five years that I was in undergrad and graduate school in Colorado, I hung out with St. John’s guys every week. They are still my closest friends to this day. I met great people in college too, but there’s no comparison. You don’t bond with a guy over a textbook the way you bond with a guy on the PT field.”
Gottsponer has also attended three St. John’s commencement ceremonies since he graduated, most recently offering a speech in honor of military staff member Marc Polzella, who retired from the school two years ago.
“I try to stay up to date and in the loop with things going on at St. John’s,” said Gottsponer. “I love that school. I value it and the people there very much.”
Today, Gottsponer speaks passionately about St. John’s Military School, the brotherhood, and the role the school and its leaders played in helping to set him on a path for success in his adult life. He admits, however, that he was initially resistant to the idea of leaving his home in Fayetteville, Arkansas when his parents decided to transfer him to the military boarding school at age 15 at the start of his sophomore year.
“It wasn’t my choice to go at the time, but back then I was not a good kid. I was hanging out with the wrong people—kids who didn’t care about school, and so I didn’t care about school. I attended a large public high school of 5,000 kids. It was an open campus so you could easily walk away for lunch and not come back and no one would notice. I was slowly slipping in the wrong direction, so you could say me arriving at St. John’s that November was years in the making.”
The tipping point for Gottsponer—the moment when he began to embrace the opportunities available to him—was the day he earned his first leadership opportunity.
“Halfway through my junior year, I rose through the ranks of C Company from team leader to squad leader to platoon sergeant,” said Gottsponer. “We had 50 kids in a platoon, and as platoon sergeant, you and your PL (platoon leader) have to take charge of your cadets. Their mistakes become your mistakes. During that time, I finally connected the dots between better performance and behavior, and opportunities and results. That was when I became emotionally invested in my Company, the staff, my fellow cadets, my subordinates, and in becoming a leader. I finally had a desire to do more. I thought I can do this. I can be good at this. Let’s see how far I can take this.”
The Highest Form of Leadership
Platoon sergeant was not the highest rank that Gottsponer would earn before graduating from St. John’s. The once reluctant freshman would graduate having earned the role of battalion commander.
“I didn’t know it was coming,” recalls Gottsponer. “When they made the announcement, it was a big moment. I thought I would continue as the company commander for C Company. Being in the battalion command means so much more responsibility. You can’t just think about your company and what you can do to improve it—you have to think about and work for all four companies.”
Looking back on his rise through the ranks to the role of battalion commander, Gottsponer recalls how the process of gaining more responsibility taught him to evolve his understanding of leadership.
“You’re growing up while you’re going through these phases of leadership,” said Gottsponer. “You’re starting to understand what’s important in how a team works and evolves while you are evolving as a leader and growing as a person. Your idea of what a good leader should be in one year is different from the next year, and they are all true in their own right.”
Gottsponer recalls learning valuable lessons of leadership not just in his leadership role, but from those around him, including faculty and staff, and fellow cadet leaders.
“As I moved into the BC (battalion commander) role, I learned from the COs (commanding officers) and first sergeants around me,” said Gottsponer. “They were quality individuals. I learned from them that when you treat people well, they will treat you well in return. There is an exponential return on the time you put into cadets. I learned that positive reinforcement could be a powerful tool. I learned you have to put the needs of the group above your own. When you’re responsible for an entire group, it can be stressful, but it shows you that a good leader is every day—not just some of the time. You have to take information from different people and put it together to form one picture and choose to do what is best to move the group forward.”
When asked about the faculty and staff members that influenced his success, Gottsponer’s list is exhaustive.
“Major Marc Polzella taught my math classes and told me about the Colorado School of Mines where I would eventually enroll,” begins Gottsponer, before adding, “Chris Zerger, my English teacher, expected so much from her students. She taught us that you can always put in a little more effort. Sgt. Walker was the military advisor for C Company. He was influential to the leadership of our Company. He had a strict set of expectations for leaders and demanded a lot from us. He knew what we were capable of, even if we didn’t. Sgt. 1st Class Jordan (deputy commandant) and Maj. Stelljes (commandant) were people who I appreciated for being honest and up front. Sgt. Jordan would always tell me when I was doing something wrong, but I knew he cared arguably more than anyone else how we were developing as young men. Also, the president at the time, Mr. England, always saw more in me than I ever did.”
Gottsponer adds one final member to his list of mentors.
“Master Sgt. McGee—maybe more than anyone—had a significant influence on me. He was always there for me, like a father figure. He was happy for you when you were doing right and would tell you when you were doing wrong.”
Moving Away, But Never Leaving it All Behind
After graduating from St. John’s, Gottsponer enrolled in the Colorado School of Mines where he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Science Degree in Structural Engineering in five years. After graduation, Gottsponer accepted a position back in his home state of Arkansas, 30-minutes south from where he grew up. As an Old Boy who became an influential leader during his time as a cadet, and still maintains ties with the school that helped him succeed, he has advice to share for the cadets about to begin their own St. John’s journeys, and their parents.
“To parents, I would say that your son is going to turn out better at St. John’s than he will at a public school, no matter the reason why you choose to send him. The experience of rising through the ranks teaches you life-lessons that most people don’t get to experience until they’re 30. You won’t find better people anywhere in the world, people who care about your son’s development and about turning him into a respectable young man. It’s their job, and they’re damn good at it. To kids, I would say to follow instruction and you’ll move up, and also that academically, no one can argue what a benefit it is to attend St. John’s.”
Gottsponer has one more message he’d like to relay, and this one is to the faculty and staff of St. John’s.
“I wouldn’t be the man I am now—not even close—without St. John’s, the faculty, and what they did for me. When I think about the patience that the faculty and staff have at St. John’s, I think they must have a calling from God. They have my lifelong love, gratitude, and respect. I just want to say thank you.”