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The Newman Years (1947-1962)

Walter Stephenson Newman was the third consecutive alumnus to assume the top position at Virginia Tech. His presidency—sometimes called the era of good will—brought tremendous growth in academic and athletic programs, enrollment, and the physical plant. It also brought numerous changes in administrators, department heads, and faculty. Generally credited with laying the groundwork for Virginia Tech’s development into a major state university, Newman provided an expanded vision of college education.

Believing that most Virginians knew little about the college’s capabilities for helping the commonwealth, Newman urged members of the board of visitors to spread the word about the school’s services and needs. His own straightforward, friendly, and earnest manner created many friends for the college, and his presentations on the school led to increased positive coverage by the media and improved financial support from the state.

During the 1948-49 school year, the second year of Newman’s presidency, the enrollment of World War II veterans hit its peak, with the population at the Rad-Tech campus reaching 805. Total enrollment for the session was 5,689. With the completion of three new dormitories—Femoyer, Monteith, and Thomas—and veteran enrollment starting to decline, the college closed Rad-Tech at the end of the1949 fall quarter.

Under Newman, Academic Buildings One and Two, both campus landmarks, were demolished to make room for new dormitories; the remaining houses on Faculty Row were removed to open up space for laboratory and classroom buildings; the landmark water tower was disassembled; the college added a baseball field and golf course; and the college spent $1,700 for a huge stability wind tunnel valued at $1 million. The completion of Vawter and Barringer Halls, under construction when Newman left office, increased on-campus housing for students from 1,976 students in 1947 to 3,904 students in 1962.

In 1948 the board of visitors authorized establishment of the VPI Educational Foundation Inc. to “work toward increasing gifts and endowments made to the college.” Former President Hutcheson, then chancellor of the college, was named president of the foundation. He retired as chancellor on June 30, 1956, to devote full attention to the foundation. In 1953 he proposed and launched a campaign to raise money for an adult education center, which the board of visitors revised to a continuing education center. A director of development post was added in 1958 to help raise funds for the center, an endowment, and other projects.

When C. P. “Sally” Miles retired on Sept. 1, 1949, the college abolished his position as dean of the college. At the same time, the office of the vice president assumed the duties of director of graduate studies. The college also decided to appoint a dean of the School of Academic Science and Business Administration, soon renamed the School of Applied Science and Business Administration.

Commencement was held for the first time in Miles Stadium in 1950 because the record number of graduates (1,440) and commencement guests exceeded the seating space in Burruss Auditorium. Dual graduation ceremonies, with part of the class graduating in the morning and the remainder in the afternoon, were held in Burruss Hall beginning in 1958. During his administration, Newman presented more diplomas than all previous presidents combined.

In 1953 the college admitted its first black student, Irving L. Peddrew III, the only African American among 3,322 students. Peddrew applied to study electrical engineering on the heels of decisions by the Supreme Court mandating white public colleges to accept qualified black applicants wanting to study programs not available at state-supported black institutions of higher education. VPI sought the advice of the commonwealth’s attorney general, who ruled that the college could not ignore that mandate. Following the ruling, the board of visitors determined that the applicant was “legally entitled to admission under the particular and specific facts and circumstances which in this instance it has found to exist.” College officials required Peddrew to fulfill the two-year military requirement but forced him to live and eat off campus. He left, in good academic standing, at the end of his junior year in 1956. In 1954 VPI admitted three additional black male students. Four years later, one of them, Charlie L. Yates, became the first African-American to graduate from the institution, receiving a bachelor’s degree with honors in mechanical engineering. Newman did not want the black students participating in social events, particularly Ring Dance, and personally discouraged some of them from doing so.

The college took steps to alleviate its water problems by joining forces with the Town of Blacksburg in 1954 to form a water authority, with the ultimate aim of bringing water from the New River to the two communities. Christiansburg joined the authority in 1955, and the system was named the VPI-Blacksburg-Christiansburg Water Authority. The filtration plant that completed the $1,750,000 system was dedicated in 1957. An emergency water supply to Blacksburg on Aug.15, 1957, inaugurated the system.

During the last half of Newman’s presidency, the college offerings and activities began to shift from a more narrow focus to the broader focus of modern land-grant institutions. Consequently, Newman began referring to VPI as “a university-type institution,” and in August 1961 the board of visitors successfully requested permission from the State Council of Higher Education to initiate degree programs in English, history, and political science for the 1962 fall quarter. The request marked a break from the college’s practice of offering humanities and social sciences as service courses and started the college down a new path.

Newman emphasized research and graduate work, and VPI strengthened its offerings and proposed degrees in the humanities, broadened its social sciences courses, added graduate degree programs, organized many new departments, created two new schools (Home Economics, effective in 1960, and Business, effective in 1961), and initiated cooperative education (1952) and graduate-level teacher training programs. Newman also recommended that architecture, then joined with engineering, be established as a separate school, which was achieved under his successor. Graduate degrees conferred at the 1962 commencement, Newman’s last one as president, numbered 211, a far cry from the year before he took office when graduate degrees presented at the 1946 commencement totaled 19 (only one degree was a Ph.D.).

VPI added a master of science in nuclear engineering physics in 1956 and became, the following year, the first college in the country to operate a nuclear reactor simulator.

In 1957, recognizing the need to coordinate religious activities on campus, Newman created the post of coordinator of religious affairs and filled it with Paul Derring, who had served as YMCA executive secretary for 39 years.

Legislation to establish the Roanoke Technical Institute as a division of the college’s School of Engineering was introduced in the General Assembly in January 1958. The first classes at the new division, originally operated as a terminal two-year school, were held in the fall 1961. New community colleges, to be operated as branches of Virginia Tech, were approved by the General Assembly in early 1962 for Wytheville and Covington-Clifton Forge.

Newman suffered a heart attack in March 1961 and was not able to return to his office until July. Later that fall, he presented the board of visitors with a formal retirement request because, he said, “I did not feel that I could carry on as vigorously as I had been able to do the past 15 years.” At a special meeting in Richmond on Dec. 4, 1961, the board announced that Newman’s retirement request had been granted, effective June 30, 1962, and that Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr., dean of arts and sciences at Kansas State University and former head of the physics department at VPI, had been elected the college’s 11th president. The board of visitors named Newman president emeritus, and he became an honorary member of the class of 1962. In 1977 he became the first recipient of Virginia Tech’s William H. Ruffner Medal, the college’s highest honor.