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The McBryde Years (1891-1907)

On May 11, 1891, the board elected John McLaren McBryde, a graduate of the University of Virginia and former professor at the University of Tennessee, as the fifth president of the college, a move that initiated a new era in the history of the institution.

McBryde assumed his new duties as president, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, and professor of agricultural chemistry on July 1, 1891, and immediately began reorganizing the curriculum as requested by the board of visitors. His full report on his plan, which resembled one prepared by William Ruffner when the college first opened, became the foundation of modern-day Virginia Tech. In it, he proposed that the land-grant school become more professional and technical and called for seven four-year courses that would lead to bachelor of science degrees and for two shorter courses that would lead to certificates, all falling under either agriculture or mechanics, which later in his administration was called engineering. The plan’s adoption marked the first time the board had acquiesced to a president’s reorganization plan, and the plan itself drew support throughout the commonwealth.

In addition to becoming the first president in the history of the college to be given almost a free hand in developing the academic program, McBryde was allowed to select his own faculty, formulate policies, and plan the physical plant. He remained in office for 16 years, allowing him to initiate new programs and see them through to success.

As president, McBryde encouraged the formation and growth of student activities and oversaw the initiation of an athletic program; the creation of a playing field for athletics and military drills; the birth of The Virginia Tech, an official organ of the Athletic Association that later became the official student newspaper; the planting of more than 2,000 ornamental trees; and the installation of a new water system, whose water tank stood as a challenge to venturesome “rats” in the corps. Wanting an infirmary and failing to obtain funding from the legislature, he converted campus residences for this purpose for a number of years. When a new home for presidents, today called “The Grove,” was completed in 1902, McBryde became the first president to live in it. After he vacated the first home for presidents, it was remodeled and two stories added for use as an infirmary. Following another enlargement in 1951, the building was named Henderson Hall to honor Dr. William F. Henderson, college surgeon and physician, 1890-1935.

McBryde introduced a program of graduate study in 1891 and established a graduate department in 1907 with William E. Barlow as the first graduate dean. He divided the college into departments, each with its own faculty and dean, and hired a career military officer as commandant. McBryde and his faculty initiated a new academic pattern leading to the degree of bachelor of science in seven programs: agriculture, horticulture, applied chemistry, general science, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. Certificate programs continued in practical agriculture and practical mechanics, but the new curriculum of 1891 clearly indicated that the college was now ready to take its place with other higher type four-year colleges and was getting away from the “industrial school” classification. In 1904 the college added its first summer school, but it was poorly attended. It was abolished in 1917 but became successful when introduced again in 1925. The college returned to the quarter system in the fall 1905.

With agriculture, mechanics, and scientific technology combined in one institution, the General Assembly changed the school’s name in 1896 to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, which was shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, then to VPI. The new name prompted a competition for a new college yell, and the winning yell, entered by 1896 alumnus O. M. Stull, eventually prompted a new nickname for the students: the Hokies. New colors—Chicago maroon and burnt orange—replaced the former colors of black and gray. The school adopted a motto, Ut Prosim (Latin for “That I May Serve”), and developed a new seal (similar to the present seal except for the name of the institution and a change in the state seal quarter). The seal was registered by the U.S. Patent Office as a trademark (no. 984532) in 1974.

McBryde successfully pushed for appropriations to hire additional faculty; to erect dormitories and faculty homes—known as Faculty Row—as student enrollment increased; and to add more buildings. Sixty-seven buildings were constructed during his term, and six were renovated. One of the buildings erected during his administration, the Young Men’s Christian Association building (today known as the Liberal Arts Building), which was funded by alumni contributions, was the first building on campus constructed of native limestone. When McBryde became president, the college had only 60 dormitory rooms; when he retired, it had 300. The first building designed specifically to house administrative offices was completed and occupied in September 1904. This building, which was located at the present northeast corner of the Drillfield and was demolished in 1950, housed officers of the college until the completion of Burruss Hall in July 1936. A combination chapel and auditorium, which was located on the site of the present Carol M. Newman Library, was completed in May 1905. It was used after 1914 as the library until just before it burned in August 1953.

The faculty increased from nine in 1891 to 48 by 1907; the student body enrollment grew from 135 in 1891 to a peak of 728 in 1904-05. The peak was followed by a decline to 619 in 1905-06, possibly attributable, at least in part, to a student-body uprising the year before, when a junior was expelled from the college for gross insubordination. After he told his classmates that he had not received a fair trial, they demanded, without investigating the matter, that faculty members rescind their action or they would withdraw from the college immediately. Before the faculty could even meet and act on the matter, the entire junior class, with theexception of 12 students, left the college. After the holidays, most of them applied for readmission, which was granted after they had expressed “regret for their hasty action and their intention of giving due recognition to the paramount authority of the governing body.”

As the college grew, McBryde concluded that the administrative duties were too great for one man and, in 1903, recommended that the title of “dean” be given to Professor Ellison A. Smyth. The board of visitors approved the suggestion, and when the 1903-04 session opened, Smyth became the first dean of the faculty.

In September 1904 Blacksburg’s first railroad link with the main line at Christiansburg was completed by the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company. It was purchased by Norfolk and Western Railway in 1911, becoming an integral part of the N&W in 1913. The 8.88-mile “Blacksburg branch” was dubbed the “Huckleberry Railroad” even before its completion because of the number of huckleberry patches along the route. Later, a myth developed that the train gained its name because it was so slow that a passenger could get off, pick berries, and catch back up with the train. The Huckleberry was first used for trips by the corps of cadets in 1904. Passenger service ended in 1958, but freight service continued on the Blacksburg branch until June 30, 1966.

Late in McBryde’s presidency, a series of incidents upset him greatly, affecting his health. In the hopes of forestalling his resignation, the board of visitors granted him a six-month leave of absence and named professors Smyth and Theodorick P. Campbell to serve jointly as president, while J. Thompson Brown, rector of the board, was designated the official head of the school. Within a month of returning to campus, McBryde realized that his health would not allow him to continue as president, and he submitted his resignation in October 1906, effective at the end of the session. In January 1907 the board of visitors elected McBryde president emeritus and voted to confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science, the first such honors ever accorded by the college (he received the degree at the June 1907 commencement ceremony).

On May 30, 1907, the board of visitors named Paul Brandon Barringer, a member and former chair of the faculty at the University of Virginia, as Virginia Tech’s sixth president. But Barringer could not report for duty until Sept. 1. The board asked McBryde to remain in office until then, and he agreed to do so.

As a result of the changes instituted by McBryde during his 16 years at the helm of Virginia Tech, he is known as the “Father of the Modern VPI.”