Virginia Tech Magazine
Fall 2007 [ In Retrospect ]

John McBryde, miracle worker
by Clara B. Cox M.A. '84

John L. McBryde

While John McLaren McBryde is known as the "Father of VPI," the title "Miracle Worker" probably comes closer to what he did for the small college known today as Virginia Tech.

Before the rector of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC) Board of Visitors recruited McBryde in 1891 for its presidency, the college had struggled for nearly two decades with political interference and a plethora of other problems. The South Carolinian came highly recommended, with the president of the University of Tennessee (UT) predicting that McBryde would make the Blacksburg college "a success at last." Prophetic words indeed.

Ten days after becoming president, McBryde presented a plan to reorganize VAMC that would transform the three-year-certificate-granting, industrial-type school into an undergraduate and graduate degree-granting college. Although he envisioned a technical college with degree programs in applied chemistry, agriculture, horticulture, general science, and several types of engineering, he wanted students to also study the humanities, including English, modern languages, political economy, history, psychology, and ethics.

His plan also established titles for teachers that would depend on subject taught and length of service, required entrance examinations in math and English or diplomas from approved schools, and called for graduate courses leading to four different types of degrees.

Additionally, he proposed a mission for the college: "to give the student a practical as well as theoretical knowledge of the sciences related to the profession or pursuit he proposes to follow, and at the same time to fit him intelligently to discharge the duties of citizenship."

McBryde Hall

The astounding thing about McBryde's plan was that the board of visitors approved it, marking the first time in college history, short though it was, that the board had not reserved the reorganization for itself. Furthermore, the board told him to proceed as he deemed best, words never heard by any of his predecessors.

A wise, practical, clear-sighted, natural leader, McBryde was well equipped to proceed. Grounded in the classics--he read Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek--he pursued classical studies at South Carolina College (SCC) and science at the University of Virginia (UVa). After serving in the Civil War as an officer and division chief of the Confederate War Tax Office, he farmed and helped organize Farmers' Clubs throughout the country; passed the bar and become a lawyer; taught at the University of Tennessee, where he became known for his passion for research and inspiring lectures; and taught, chaired the faculty, and became president of SCC.

When McBryde arrived in Blacksburg, he proceeded to change VAMC. "I was given carte blanche to do anything and everything I wished," he later wrote. The college blossomed under his leadership and, upon its recognition as one of the country's best technical schools, VAMC was granted a name change by an impressed Virginia General Assembly, which in 1896 changed VAMC’s name to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or VPI. The General Assembly formally adopted that designation in 1944, giving Virginia Tech its third official name.

McBryde Hall
McBryde Hall today  
With the new name, McBryde and his son began developing the visual trappings of a bona fide college, developing a coat of arms, the motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), and the college seal. New school colors--Chicago maroon and burnt orange--and a new college cheer, "Old Hokie," also emerged with the name change. The Grove, Virginia Tech's president's residence, was constructed, and McBryde and his family became its first residents.

McBryde's reputation expanded as rapidly as did that of his school, to which he was devoted (said one college visitor in an interview with a Richmond, Va., newspaper: "Dr. McBryde did not talk about anything but the institute. . . . I have never seen a man so wrapped up in a special work as is he in the school which he has made."), precipitating job offers from Clemson, Sweet Briar, and UVa for their presidency and from President Grover Cleveland for a national post--he declined them all.

Under McBryde's leadership, enrollment increased almost 500 percent; the faculty increased six-fold; the campus spread from 10 to 100 acres; 67 new buildings were erected; six existing buildings were renovated; a drill field/athletic ground was provided; library hours increased, a sewage system was installed; extensive improvements were made to the campus farm; miles of avenues and walks were added, nearly 2,000 ornamental trees were planted; 240 barracks rooms were added to the existing 60, and the college conferred its first graduate degrees. More importantly, the college became strong academically and moved into a position of prestige—and state financial support increased tremendously, thanks to McBryde's personal efforts.

Idolized by the corps of cadets--he knew all cadets by name--and respected by his faculty, McBryde retired in 1907, whereupon the president of Georgia Tech called him "the greatest living benefactor of education in the South"; the University of South Carolina awarded him an honorary Doctor of Law and its McMaster Medal, presented annually to an alumnus for the most distinguished service to mankind; the Southwestern Presbyterian University conferred an honorary Doctor of Law on him; and the University of Tennessee awarded him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy. Additionally, a committee of the Carnegie Foundation selected him to receive the Carnegie Foundation Pension for life in appreciation for his work in advancing education in America.

The VPI Board of Visitors named him Virginia Tech's first president emeritus and conferred on him its first honorary degree. McBryde Hall (both the first building, which was razed, and the second building of that name) honors his memory. The board also offered him land on campus for his home, and McBryde built his house on a hill overlooking the campus he had served for 16 years.

Virginia Tech's miracle worker died in 1923, leaving behind a foundation for modern-day Virginia Tech.

Clara B. Cox is director of University Publications.

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