Les Wolff was the last KMI graduate!
He was the last of the long, gray line, the last of a 126-year tradition at Kentucky Military Institute that wintered in Venice three decades ago.
Capt. William Leslie Wolff was the last man to graduate from KMI before it closed its doors in 1971. At the time, it was one of the country's oldest private military high schools.
He followed James M. Wander, Daniel H. Ward III and Michael P. Williams II on stage to receive his diploma. When Lt. Col. N.C. Hodgin, who was also the headmaster, presented William with his certificate, Kentucky Military Institute ceased to exist as an all-male military school.
Founded in 1845 in Lyndon, Ky., the school established winter quarters in Venice in 1932. Generations of Venice residents remember KMI cadets marching in their gray dress uniforms on the parade ground that paralleled the north side of West Venice Avenue on the island.
The parade ground has since been turned into a municipal parking lot and the former barracks today is the Venice Center Mall. It still retains the Mediterranean-style architecture with its barrel-tile roof, brown tile floors and stucco exterior popular in the 1920s and '30s in this area.
It was during his sophomore and junior year in high school, while still living with his parents in Franklin, Ind., that Les decided KMI was the place for him.
"He had a job at a restaurant at the time. He ended up cleaning the grease out of a flue one day. It was at that point he decided an education might be a pretty good thing," his father, Charles Wolff of Rotonda West, recalled. "He had two cousins who attended KMI."
At 16, he joined the junior class at the Kentucky-based school in 1970. That winter he made his first trip to Venice with the rest of the cadets.
"One time while at KMI Les called and told me, 'I have good news and bad news. The good news is I got promoted. The bad news is I have to buy a saber.' We got him a saber," his dad said with a chuckle.
"In 1970, when we came down to Venice to get him, we were told that next year the school would be closing," Charles said. "Because his name was at the end of the alphabet, we assumed he would be the last man to graduate."
Apparently other moms and dads wanted their cadet to be KMI's last graduate. But the institution stuck to its guns and presented diplomas in alphabetical order, just as it had for decades.
With Wolff as a last name, Les was the end of the line. His graduation marked the end of the institution, the end of an era.
The closure of KMI was a reflection of the times. The Vietnam War was in its final stages. Protesters were in the streets in big cities and small towns throughout the country burning their draft cards, and chanting "hell no, we won't go" to military service in southeast Asia. There was a backlash against ROTC programs and military schools in general.
"I was told by the colonel that military schools were becoming very unpopular in this country," Charles said. "After KMI closed in 1971 as a military institution, it reopened the next year as Kentucky Academy and it became co-ed. It only lasted a short time before it closed its doors for good."
After graduation from KMI, Les attended Milligan College in Tennessee, where he majored in psychology. Ultimately, he became interested in hyperbaric oxygen therapy for treating patients with a variety of problems, from carbon monoxide poisoning, thermal burns, crush injury and problem wounds to gangrene.
He became an expert in hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Wolff was instrumental in installing a number of these units in hospitals, including one at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Some years ago, he began having serious back problems. After two unsuccessful operations, all he could do was take medication for the pain. At times, the pain would be so severe it would disable him.
One day, Les was going through one of those periods where he couldn't work and was at home trying to endure severe back problems. He went into convulsions and was rushed to Johnson City Medical Center near where he lived in Tennessee.
On Christmas Day, Charles and Les' mother, Jeannie, relieved a call. Their son had died on the way to the hospital.
The last KMI cadet
Les Wolff was 49.
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