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* * Blacksburg's famous, Part 1


I’m guessing that the moment after you finished reading my column last week on Christiansburg’s most famous residents, you were asking yourself, “What about Blacksburg?” As was I after writing it. In researching Blacksburg’s list, I quickly discovered that there would be a longer list and it would be locally divided into two groups: those folks who were born and raised in Blacksburg or made significant contributions to their careers in Blacksburg, and those who attended Virginia Tech, but then moved on and made their mark afterwards.

Thus here in Part 1, I’ll deal with the former.

For our first famous person, we go back to 1738 when William Preston arrived in the colonies and ultimately to Smithfield Plantation in 1761. He survived the famous Draper’s Meadow massacre in 1755 and later served in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. He was elected to the Virginia colony’s House of Burgesses in 1765 and later served as a founding trustee of Liberty Hall, the precursor to Washington and Lee University.

Second on our list is the Black family for whom Blacksburg is named. Samuel Black died in 1792, deeding the land to his two sons, John and William. John’s property eventually became developed into the campus of Virginia Tech, and William laid out the original 4 by 4 block of streets now known as the “Old Sixteen Squares.”

Perhaps Virginia Tech’s earliest prominent educator was Julian Ashby Burruss, for whom Burruss Hall is named. He was Tech’s eighth president and the first Tech alumnus to be appointed its president. He graduated in 1898 with a degree in Civil Engineering and for his 26-year tenure as president, led to the first major expansion and modernization of the Institute.

Next on our list is T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., Tech’s president from 1962 to 1974, during which he is generally credited for overseeing Tech’s transition from a small, primarily military college with a focus on engineering and agriculture to the coeducational, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary university we see today. After leaving Tech, he became an executive with the Georgia-Pacific Corporation where he retired as CEO. Hahn had a PhD in Physics and was legendary for his photographic memory.

The next five entries are among Tech’s most prominent, well-known, and influential faculty members.

I’ll start with Irving Jack Good, who was a legendary British mathematician and computer scientist who worked with Alan Turing during the Second World War on the design of rudimentary computer and the cracking of the Enigma Code the Germans had developed to communicate with their warships. Born Isadore Jacob Gudak in London, I. J. “Jack” Good finished his career as professor at Tech, where he once said about his arrival, “I arrived in Blacksburg in the seventh hour of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year seven in the seventh decade, and I was put in Apartment 7 of Block 7...all by chance.”

Other notable Tech professors were:

  • James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., taught Civil War history to over 20,000 students during his 44-year research and teaching career.
  • Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, Jr., one of the world’s best known African-American poets and one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends.” After the April 2007 shooting by one of her students, Giovanni delivered a chant poem including the words, “We are Virginia Tech… We will prevail,” expressing the idea that even good people can suffer unspeakable tragedies.
  • Franklin Mitchell “Frank” Beamer is arguably Blacksburg’s most famous current resident. A retired football coach, Beamer played for Tech from 1966 until 1968, and was head coach from 1987 until 2015, where he was one of the longest tenured coaches in the NCAA and one of the winningest coaches. He led the Hokies into post-season play from 1993 until his retirement, a streak continuing under his successor Justin Fuente, and the longest in the nation. He was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is still often seen around campus walking his dog, Hank.
  • One of Tech’s most famous active professors is Marc Edwards, whose work in the study of water treatment and corrosion, especially in Washington DC and Flint, MI has made him a hero for people fighting for better municipal drinking water nationwide. In 2004, Time magazine featured him as one of the USA’s most influential scientists.

On a more negative note, I’ll quickly mention Blacksburg’s most notorious product, Henry Lee Lucas, who beginning around 1951 and for decades thereafter murdered dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, including his mother. He died in a Texas prison in 2001.

Blacksburg’s most successful businessman is computer engineer and multi-billionaire Eric Emerson Schmidt, who led Google from 2001 to 2015 and now leads Alphabet Inc.

Many other Tech professors and administrators deserve mention, but my word limit encroaches. Next time, I’ll list 10 of Tech’s most famous graduates.


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