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Rob Wittman '81
In the fish bowl
with Rob Wittman


Audio excerpts of the day with Wittman
Rob Wittman's official biography contains a seemingly scripted phrase, attesting that the U.S. representative from Virginia's 1st Congressional District is an "avid hunter and fisherman."

A visit to his D.C. office, however, makes it apparent that Wittman (biological sciences '81) is the genuine article. Mounted fish, from an 8-ounce redbreast sunfish to a 308-pound blue fish tuna, adorn the walls, along with five stuffed ducks and three framed diplomas.

"We call this 'the fish bowl,'" says Mary Springer, Wittman's chief of staff.

In this fish bowl, the Virginia Tech alumnus now operates on a stage of national prominence, a place where every minute of the day is meant to maximize his outreach, influence, and impact.


In late April, Wittman was at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, considering a bill to improve financial management practices in Department of Defense purchases.

The Republican listens intently, surrounded by 55 representatives and a packed gallery. The 52-year-old leans forward to adjust his microphone and to place reading glasses on the end of his nose, studying a series of new amendments. One by one, each representative's name is called for the vote.

"Aye," Wittman says, the single syllable carrying the weight of about 643,000 people. One of 11 Virginia congressional districts, the 1st District stretches alongside the Chesapeake Bay from Fauquier County to Gloucester.

Wittman's gradual rise was most recently marked by his re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2008, having first earned the seat in December 2007 after Rep. Jo Ann Davis's death. Wittman's political career began in 1986 on the Montross Town Council, which led to the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors in 1995 and then the Virginia House of Delegates in 2005.

Wittman's background--equal parts professional, political, and academic distinction--is tailor-made for Congress. The self-described "policy wonk" spent 26 years in state government as a field director for the division of shellfish sanitation in the Virginia health department and as an environmental health specialist for local health departments in the commonwealth. Coupled with his political experience at the town, county, and state levels, Wittman enjoys the interplay between politics and public policy.

"At the end of the day, good public policy is good politics. I think that's where my strengths are: to be able to talk in a very simple, basic, but thoughtful way about public policy and convey it in a political context [that is] not overly partisan."

After completing his degree at Virginia Tech, Wittman earned a master's degree in health policy and administration from the University of North Carolina and a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Virginia Commonwealth University. Wittman says he's learned "how much [I] don't know" but, most importantly, how to find credible, valid information. "If you don't develop analytical, problem-solving, and writing skills, then you haven't gotten out of the advanced degrees what you need," he says.


Wittman walks fast, his aides warn. Almost jogging between appointments, the former member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets recalls how cadets carried bricks in their backpacks, one for each wrong answer. By the end of the week, laden with 17 or 18 bricks, the cadets then ran up Brush Mountain. On Capitol Hill, he's now engaged in the political equivalent. He breezes up and down flights of stairs, through underground tunnels and security checkpoints, from speeches to photo "opps" to votes to constituent meetings in a calculated series of events repeated daily. He's carried a pedometer to learn he walks up to five miles a day.

The discipline, structure, and teamwork of the corps remain with him today. "This is a job where you have to really stay on task and be focused," Wittman says. "The corps taught me that."

His Virginia Tech professors also played an important role. George M. Simmons Jr., who taught courses in biology, limnology, aquatic ecology, and marine biology, challenged and motivated Wittman. After an academically sub-par second year, Wittman needed an exemption to perform undergraduate research. Simmons stood up for him.

Professors hope to develop a knack for identifying talent, Simmons explains. In Wittman, he saw the sincerity, character, and intelligence that could lead to great things.

"[Wittman is] that caliber of individual," Simmons says. "It's kind of like that in athletics. You can't make a racehorse out of a donkey. You've got to have talent."

University Distinguished Professor George J. Flick Jr., an expert in food science and technology who has experienced Wittman's expertise outside academics, says that the alumnus is a capable scientist who has improved food safety regulation but is also focused on service to people. In an echo of Virginia Tech's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Flick illustrates his point. About five years ago, the FDA sought to disallow a common industry practice whereby workers selected which bucket of oysters to sort, claiming that a forgotten bucket of oysters might sit out in the open all day. The industry didn't have the laboratory space or resources to run samples showing that the sorting practice was safe.

But Wittman did, and his research--which the FDA accepted--validated the safety of the process and saved the industry money.

"He was up early, and he'd quit late at night," Flick says. "That was typical Rob. As a regulator in a state health agency, he didn't have
to do that."

Rob and Kathryn Wittman (bottom row) with their son Josh (upper right), son-in-law Daniel Gooch (upper left), daughter Devon Gooch, and granddaughter Morgan.
Rep. Rob Wittman (VA-1)
Rob and Kathryn Wittman (bottom row) with their son Josh (upper right), son-in-law Daniel Gooch (upper left), daughter Devon Gooch, and granddaughter Morgan.

In his office that afternoon, Wittman takes his suit jacket off for the first time and reflects on coming to Washington.

"Being able to meet with world leaders--understanding that what you once used to read about in the newspapers, now you're actually a part of that news--has been a pleasantly surprising element to me here," Wittman says. "I didn't think I'd be able to get involved at that level as quickly as I have been."

Three years ago, Wittman was running for his second term in the House of Delegates when Davis died. "I had a number of people call me and say, 'Rob, you ought to run,'" he says. "My wife and I had a lot of conversations, did some praying, and determined that we were going to put forth the effort to seek the nomination."

Ten others had the same idea, and Wittman went into the convention without many resources "but with lots of desire. A number of people helped, and the whole thing caught fire."

Though Wittman finds himself in a whirlwind now, he's fortunate to remain close to his family by living in Montross and commuting to D.C. His wife, Kathryn, teaches elementary school, as she has for 30 years. Their daughter, Devon (management '04), and son-in-law, Daniel, have a daughter and live nearby. Their son, Josh, a captain on a commercial fishing boat, is also close.

Wittman recalls sage advice from fellow Virginia congressman Frank Wolf: "'Leaders in this nation come and go. But you know who will be there after all this? They were there at the beginning, and they'll be there after all of this is over, and that's your family.' He said, 'Don't ever forget your family.'"

Wittman's life revolves around relationships and people --lawmakers, constituents, family, and staff. Around 5 p.m. in his office in April, he is beckoned by aides and whisked away to yet another appointment.

This time, there is no advocacy, no facts to remember, no speech in front of cameras.

Just singing. Right on schedule, everyone sings "Happy Birthday" to Wittman's chief of staff, topping it off with ice cream cake.

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