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The Eggleston Years (1913-1919)

The rumors that Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Jr. would be the next president of Virginia Tech proved to be true when he assumed the office on July 1, 1913. Although he was chief of Field Service in Rural Education in the United States at the time of his appointment, he was known throughout Virginia for his work as state superintendent of public instruction from 1906 until his resignation on Dec. 1, 1912, and particularly for his emphasis on rural education.

Unlike his predecessor, Eggleston was an expert at public relations and wrote countless letters to legislators, alumni, newspaper editors, and influential leaders, promoting the college and pushing for additional funding. He was successful in increasing public support, but financial support from the General Assembly remained comparatively meager. Since he believed that the inadequacy of funds reflected a lack of understanding about the college’s work, he developed a plan that centered on informed and interested alumni, laying the foundation for a strong alumni association in the process.

A year after Eggleston took office, an Agricultural Extension Division was established as a result of the federal Smith-Lever Act of May 8, 1914. The Virginia General Assembly transferred control of agricultural demonstration work, already being conducted in the state, to Tech’s administration. One of the employees gained by the college as a result of this transfer was Ella Graham Agnew, the first woman appointed for field service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When a home demonstration program commenced in 1915, Agnew became Virginia’s—and the nation’s—first female home demonstration agent.

In other changes under Eggleston, the faculty reorganized the general-science program eliminated by President Barringer. The departments of English, history, foreign languages, economics, and mathematics were organized into a single academic department. On Nov. 23, 1916, the board of visitors approved the first Reserve Officer Training Corps program at the college, and an Army ROTC infantry unit was established on Jan. 5, 1917. Additionally, VPI was selected under the Smith-Hughes Act to train teachers for vocational agriculture in the secondary schools.

Eggleston was ahead of his time in several areas. Believing that education involved “development of the whole life,” he wanted to start a physical education program, but the board of visitors turned down his proposal. He also proposed unsuccessfully that secret fraternities be allowed a trial period. He believed that the agricultural extension program not only was important in increasing farm production but also could improve all aspects of rural living. He envisioned making “the state of Virginia the campus of this agricultural college” and having VPI “answer promptly and effectively every reasonable call that is made by anyone who wishes to improve conditions on the farm.”

Several material improvements were made on the campus during Eggleston’s tenure. A relatively unknown architecture firm, Carneal and Johnston, was selected to submit a general plan for the future development of the campus. That same firm also designed the McBryde Building of Mechanic Arts, the first building constructed in the neo-Gothic style and designed to use native limestone (Hokie Stone), following a directive from Eggleston to depart from the poverty-stricken, factory type of architecture that had been employed and to create a prototype for buildings at VPI (The Chapel, constructed in 1905 was designed in the neo-Gothic style, and the design called for it to be constructed of brick; however, since the college could not obtain the brick, local limestone was used instead). The McBryde building, which was demolished in 1968 to make room for a new McBryde Hall, was erected, though not completed, and put into use in August 1917. Also, students paid a $5 fee to erect the first facility built primarily to be used as a gymnasium. Known simply as the Field House, it was located on a site approximately half way between the present Carol M. Newman Library and Eggleston Hall. It burned on Nov. 4, 1923. Under Eggleston, the college also completed the alumni gate entrance to campus, which faced straight down Main Street and remained in use until 1936; acquired 60 acres of land in the vicinity of today’s Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown; constructed 10 new faculty residences; and added several concrete walks.

After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the college became a training school for both the Army and the Navy and was operated on a 12-month basis. The regular summer school was suspended until 1925. The first detachment of soldiers—226 of them—arrived in May 1918 for special vocational training. A unit of 550 men, part of the War Department’s Students’ Army Training Corps, was assigned to VPI the following autumn to receive special collegiate-level training, as requested by the armed services. In June 1919, as a result of the contribution made by Tech alumni to the war effort, the War Department designated the college as one of 12 “Distinguished Colleges” in the nation. As the war began, many students dropped out to join the armed forces. Several were recognized for gallantry, including Earle D. Gregory, who became the first native Virginian to receive the nation’s Medal of Honor and for whom the corps of cadets’ Gregory Guard drill team is named.

Unexpectedly in the spring of 1919, Eggleston announced that he was resigning, effective July 1, 1919, at the end of the academic year to accept the presidency of his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College.