top of page

The Academy's Quiet Carpenter

For all the time I spend searching for AMA’s history, some of the best discoveries just walk in the door. 


Durwood Lam and his wife, Deborah, visited on October 8.  Mr. Lam’s last time on campus was in 1984, shortly after being shocked to find that his job as AMA’s carpenter was over.


Durwood was born at home in Elkton on October 3, 1947.  He was not quite 17 when he started carpentry as a day laborer for AB Torrence.  Each morning, he’d walk 5 miles to route 33 to get picked up with the other workers and delivered to wherever the work was that day.


In the mid-70s, his friend and fellow Elktonian, Maj. Maxwell Hutton, asked Durwood to bring his skills to AMA.  Durwood describes Max, who died in 2004, “as a great worker, honest man.  A all around good guy with lots of friends and lots of respect.”

From his workshop near the PX, Durwood handled many types of jobs, but doors and windows needed constant attention.  He noted that cadets, to put it mildly, were hard on the infrastructure.  He remembered one time when Maj. Hutton asked him to replace a 2nd-stoop door after a cadet impaled it with a bayonet.  The job done, Durwood immediately reported back to Max, but both soon heard the cadet assaulting the new door.  Maj. Hutton took the long view.  “That’s OK,” he said very calmly.  “Let him tear it up, and when his parents have to pay for another new door, then maybe something will be done.”  Now, as we walked around the west side of the barracks, Durwood could still spot which window frames were his work.  Among the wide range of his other tasks, he built some of the barracks bookcases.  He installed the drop ceiling in the Big Room – though he couldn’t understand why anyone wanted to cover those beautiful rafters.  He helped Sam Wales mount his bird house.  He stripped decades of wax off wood floors…and then there was mowing.

Maintenance was his specialty, but his most prominent and meaningful legacy is a unique piece that he made from scratch.

While talking outside, I mentioned that Trigger was buried just south of the bowl.  Durwood said he remembered making a gravestone for one of the campus dogs but didn’t recall the name. 


That’s how a piece of history was suddenly handed to me, completing a story that I’d never realized was unfinished.  I quickly brought Durwood back inside to show him the stone he’d last seen 44 years ago.  I’d always assumed it had been made by cadets.  So much for assumptions, but I never had any lead.  Neither did the cadets.  At age 19, Trigger died on June 4, 1979, two days after Finals.  Summer session didn’t begin for another 3 weeks.  Carlos Bonnelly’s obituary for Trigger, in the November Bayonet, mentions the stone’s location but not its maker.


It was Max’s idea for Trigger to have a gravestone.  Durwood, who’d always liked the collie, first made a wooden frame, constructed an interior metal fence for strength, and poured in the concrete.  He drew in the name and years of likely the longest-lived unofficial mascot of AMA.  He finished the piece with a hat pin and belt buckle.  Durwood had already laid Trigger in a footlocker and buried him next to his favorite napping spot.  Standing under that tree now, he said he originally planted the stone facing toward campus, just beyond the tree’s roots.  He’d worried that it would’ve disappeared in the decades since.


Instead, alumni and Rich and I had moved it into the museum last year to preserve it from the elements.  In its place, there is a new stone, donated by Jeff Wenzel ’70, which reads:







Durwood was as blindsided as anyone by the school’s closure.  He knew nothing until the bank called one day to inform him that his paycheck had bounced.  He never saw the money, but he pivoted to carpentry for Nielson Contractors.  After nearly 25 years there, he retired in 2011.  He still lives in Elkton.  He enjoys his coffee group at the Elkton 7/11 and loves playing pool with friends, but his best time is spent with Debbie either sightseeing or just being at home with their 2 pet geese, Twinkie & Tweety.


Durwood Lam and the rest of the staff were necessary for the corps’ daily life but not part of it.  As the culture, economy, and wear and tear turned against the academy, the staff struggled to keep it functional, but they couldn’t have the same relationships that faculty had with students.  They didn’t teach or coach.  They didn’t have rank.  They didn’t live with the cadets.  You saw them and their work, but rarely could you get to know them.  Col. Savedge’s assistant, Elaine Huffman, may be widely remembered, but many more are probably only a first name (Roscoe) or a nickname (“Benny the Barber” and “Half Mouth”).  Some at least got mentioned in the Recalls, but for most others, like the original “stew bums” of the Great Depression, there is no record.


        We had nothing on Durwood.  I’d shown his work to countless visitors as I told Trigger’s story.  We stood before that gravestone appreciating his work, admiring the kindness behind it, while making a false assumption.


        Now I know, but only by luck.  History just walked in the door.  It’s the same good fortune that happens whenever any of AMA’s people tell me their story.  They might think it’s unremarkable common knowledge, but they might be the only person who ever returns to share it, or the only person left alive who knows it.  Such stories sit precariously at the edge of oblivion.


        There are countless more stories like Durwood’s waiting to be told, but first someone must realize that these stories matter.  Trigger and the stone mattered to Durwood, not finally getting credit, so he just came to look around, not tell his story.  I had to bring it up, after a long conversation, before he even mentioned his role.  Durwood’s name and history are valuable because the story of AMA is nothing if not a story about people (and dogs).  That story isn’t complete until we know what they all did here, how life brought them here, and where it took them.


My next big discovery for AMA’s story might be a document or a photo, but it’s more likely to be a memory of something with no tangible record, only what you recall.  That’s priceless, but it’s also fragile and temporary.  The only way to preserve it is to share it, so write, call, or visit.  Tell me what you remember.


Thanks for reading.

Durwood Lam kneeling next to the gravestone he made for Trigger in 1979.
Former AMA carpenter Durwood Lam kneels next to the 1979 gravestone he made for Trigger.



Augusta Military

Academy Museum

Voice: 540-248-3007
Fax: 540-248-4533

Museum Hours

& Location

1640 Lee Highway

Fort Defiance, VA 24437


10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Closed Mother's day and Major Holidays.

© 2024 by Augusta Military Academy Museum. All rights reserved. Web Development by Valley Media

bottom of page