Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Fall 2008

When The Bugle dedicated its 1941 volume to John Edward Williams, it cited "his fine qualities as a man, his patient tolerance as an administrator, and his sincere understanding as a counselor." The yearbook could just as easily have added "his ability to assess character" to that list.

The multifaceted Williams, a professor and dean of the college at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (popularly called VPI, now Virginia Tech), wore many hats, but his most enduring legacy may well be the impact he had on the lives of students. One in particular, the late William E. Skelton (see Alumni Association), never forgot what the dean of the college did for him.

Struggling with a tuition bill and a sparsity of funds, Skelton approached Williams to explain his plight. The astute administrator not only loaned him the money to continue his schooling, he also helped him find a job. As Skelton left the meeting, the dean's words rang in his ears: "Pay me back when you can." Skelton paid Williams back and completed his education--and devoted 39 years of his life to Virginia Tech.

Many other students benefited from the wisdom and wise counsel of the man. Another Bugle dedicated to Williams noted that his "efforts to promote the welfare of the institute and its students are as untiring as they are effective." And The Techgram said that he "earned the respect and admiration of succeeding generations" of students.

Williams had a particular fondness for sports and was a principal faculty sponsor of the athletic program. To honor that facet of his life, a football game was dedicated to him on his 75th birthday in 1942.

Williams Hall
Williams Hall
The Charlotte County, Va., native earned degrees from Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia. He worked as a high school principal and an instructor at U.Va. before joining the math department at VPI in 1903. He was named dean in 1924.

Williams was prominent in Virginia education and politics, serving on the state board of education, as president of the Association of Virginia Colleges, and on the Central Democratic Committee of Virginia. He headed the Hampden-Sydney Board of Trustees, belonged to numerous professional organizations, and was a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Closer to home, he assumed the administrative duties of President Julian A. Burruss when Burruss took a three-month leave of absence.

After five years as dean, Williams was lauded by The Roanoke Times for winning "a place with the student body as one of the most popular members of the faculty." And no matter how many duties he faced, the newspaper continued, "he is never too busy to confer with students on their scholastic or individual difficulties."

Williams's death on April 19, 1943, was a blow to the college. President Burruss called his passing "one of the greatest losses the Virginia Polytechnic Institute has ever suffered. The 40 years which he gave to this institution rendered service of value beyond estimate." The Roanoke Times said it was "difficult to think of VPI without him," and The Richmond News Leader reported, "In all of [VPI's] history, few men did more ... to make it of fullest utility to the students and the commonwealth."

Today, this jewel of Virginia Tech is remembered through the building that bears his name: Williams Hall.

CLARA B. COX is director of University Publications.

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