Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Spring 2010
Bookmark and Share

Frank Leigh Robeson: A legacy of achievementt by Clara B. Cox M.A. '84
Since April 16, 2007, just the word "Norris" spurs memories of violence and grief. But Earle Bertram Norris, one of Virginia Tech's greatest educators, lived a life poles apart from what happened in the building whose name honors his memory.

Norris' contributions to Virginia Tech, known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute and as Virginia Polytechnic Institute (both abbreviated popularly to VPI) during his tenure, were so impressive that President Julian A. Burruss (civil engineering 1898) wrote to him, "All of the remarkably fine efforts you have made and the valuable results you have achieved for VPI are appreciated beyond measure.... When Gen. [Stonewall] Jackson died, Gen. [Robert E.] Lee said he had lost his right arm. I am far from being a Lee, but I should feel as Lee did if for any reason you should be lost to VPI--such a loss is unthinkable."

Born in 1882 in Jamestown, N.Y., Norris was educated at public schools in Warren, Pa. He attended Pennsylvania State College, graduating with honors in mechanical engineering (ME) in 1904.

He married Faye Heard in 1905 and worked in industry in Michigan for two years before returning to Penn State in 1906 as an ME instructor and a graduate student and earning a master of engineering in 1908.

Fresh out of graduate school, Norris was hired by the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor, and he moved through the ranks, becoming a full professor in 1916. While on the faculty, he co-authored three textbooks. He resigned in 1916 to become the industrial commissioner for the Association of Commerce in St. Paul, Minn.

Norris' professional life was interrupted by 15 months of service in World War I, where he was a captain and then a major in the Army Ordnance Department. Gen. John J. Pershing, commanding officer of the American Expeditionary Force, cited him for meritorious service in France, and Norris was also awarded a Purple Heart.

Norris Hall
In 1919, Norris was named dean of engineering at the University of Montana. Sometime before 1925, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the ordnance reserve. At one point, he was called to active duty to spend two weeks in Washington, D.C., where he joined a consultative war-plans group studying ways to strengthen the reserves of the Ordnance Department so it would operate with maximum efficiency during wartime.

Norris worked at the University of Montana until 1928, when he was named dean of engineering at VPI. When he went to work in Blacksburg, the School of Engineering offered six accredited curricula. When Norris retired on his 70th birthday in 1952, he left a far different scenario.

Norris' professional talents blossomed at VPI. He grew the engineering school until he had doubled the number of accredited curricula to 12, the fourth largest number in the country; assumed responsibility for the local airport; chaired the Administrative Council; directed the Virginia Engineering Experiment Station for 20 years; helped organize a Student Engineering Council; and served as faculty advisor to the Virginia Tech Engineer staff. He also co-wrote another textbook and updated two for publication as later editions. Upon his recommendations, several new positions were established at VPI: dean of men, director of admissions, and director of guidance and placement.

Additionally, his off-campus engineering programs provided a jump-start for higher education throughout the commonwealth. Norris set up the first engineering courses at William & Mary College's Norfolk Division, which evolved into today's Old Dominion University. He also developed courses that enabled students to study for one or two years at home before enrolling at VPI, a practice that led to the establishment of several two-year institutions and, according to Willis G. Worcester, a later dean of engineering at VPI, to the growth of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Students admired Norris and dedicated the 1940 yearbook to him: "In appreciation to Dean Norris, engineer, soldier, scholar. For his untiring efforts resulting in the enlargement and betterment of an engineering school; for integrity, for intelligence, for his own great achievements, for accomplishments in every field within which he has endeavored, we dedicate this 46th volume of The Bugle."

Two years later, the yearbook called for "the neophyte engineers" of the Class of 1942 to "uphold the records of past classes. The sum of the individual records of these Techmen will add up to a further tribute to the foresightedness and determination of Earl[e] B. Norris, producer of production, dean of the School of Engineering."

By the time Norris died in 1966, he had been elevated to Fellow in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and was a member of the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-VPI Water Authority.

In 1967, the school he had served with such dedication and foresight named the Engineering Building, completed in 1962, in his memory. And in 1969, VPI unveiled a portrait of him, which was hung in Norris Hall. For the occasion, the Blacksburg Sun called Norris one of Virginia Tech's "all-time great educators," and then-President T. Marshall Hahn said at the unveiling ceremony: "Tech's development toward becoming a great university was made possible by the outstanding contributions of those who led the way. We will be forever in his debt."

CLARA B. COX M.A. '84 is director of University Publications.

Virginia Tech