Virginia Tech mourns President Emeritus Paul Torgersen
by Steven Mackay and Jesse Tuel
Shortly before Paul Torgersen became Virginia Tech's 14th president, he referred to himself as "a professor who is also serving as president."
A revered educator who treasured his students, Torgersen, who died March 29 at the age of 83, spent 58 years in the classroom. Even while he was the president from 1994 to 2000 and the College of Engineering (COE) dean from 1970 to 1990, he taught at least one course per semester.
"I always felt his best job was as a professor," said COE Dean Richard Benson. "He loved being in the classroom."
W.S. "Pete" White Jr. (electrical engineering '48), the BOV rector when Torgersen became president, remained a close friend. "To know Paul well was to love him," White said. "He was a very caring person. ... He was interested in people. He liked what he was doing. He liked working with young people."
Bevlee Watford (mining engineering '81, M.S. industrial engineering and operations research '83, Ph.D. '85) experienced Torgersen's intent firsthand.
At a luncheon for black students during her sophomore year, Watford found herself sitting next to a faculty member she didn't know. "When he found out I was studying mining, we started talking about the department, my upcoming co-op position, and many other things," Watford said. "I remember thinking, 'This guy is a total stranger, but seems really interested in me.' It was a nice conversation that ended with him offering me encouragement and saying to contact him if I needed something."
Only when the man left did Watford learn who he was. "Imagine my total shock when I realized I had spent lunchtime talking with the dean of my college, Paul E. Torgersen," she said. "I never forgot that meeting."
The conversation was "one of those truly pivotal events we all have in our lives," said Watford, now a professor of engineering education, COE associate dean of academic affairs, and director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity. "He was an incredible mentor, someone I could always talk to about any kind of issue. He was always in my corner. I am lucky that he was such a positive force in my life, and Virginia Tech was lucky that he chose Blacksburg as the place to make his home and career."
Torgersen went out of his way to serve students. Once, a student's father was seriously injured in an automobile accident and not expected to live. Torgersen, then the dean, bought the student an airplane ticket to return home, and the student was able to see his father before his father died that evening.
Former BOV rector Mike Quillen (civil engineering '70, M.S. '71) came to Tech from a small town and was discouraged by the difficulty of calculus and physics courses. Torgersen, who was his advisor, encouraged him to stick it out. "Paul was the driving force to make me stay," Quillen said. "There's nobody I respect more than Paul. He was just a great gentleman."
Bachelor's degree, industrial engineering, Lehigh University
Master's degree and Ph.D., Ohio State University
Faculty member, Oklahoma State University
Faculty member, Virginia Tech
Dean, College of Engineering, Virginia Tech
President, Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, along with other interim roles
President, Virginia Tech
Named to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, Fellow in the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education
Member of the Ut Prosim Society of donors
As much impact as Torgersen had on individual students, the university trajectory he charted as an administrator was equally as impressive.
During Torgersen's time as dean, COE emerged from the bottom 10 percent in rankings for research to join the top 10 percent. During his presidency, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine received full accreditation and U.S. News & World Report ranked the engineering and business colleges among the nation's top 50. During Torgersen's time as dean, COE emerged from the bottom 10 percent in rankings for research to join the top 10 percent.
In addition, the university community raised $337 million in a capital campaign, and the university endowment nearly doubled. For the first time, women were hired for the positions of provost and dean. He created the position of vice president for multicultural affairs, for which he hired the university's first black vice president. Through athletic excellence, including a spot in the 2000 national football championship game, Virginia Tech also became more widely known nationwide.
T. Marshall Hahn, Tech's 11th president from 1962 to 1974, offered his insights for a legacy project honoring Torgersen. "If I were given the task of creating a distinguished, outstanding university," Hahn wrote, "I could do it with three Pauls: one for instruction, one for research, and one for his administrative skills."
Others held Torgersen in similarly high esteem. When Eric Schmidt, now the executive chairman of Google, committed $2 million to endow a chaired professorship for the position of COE dean, he did so under the condition that the professorship bear the name of Torgersen and his wife, Dorothea, who died in September 2014. Bill Goodwin (mechanical engineering '62) did the same when he gave money toward a campus building, asking that the facility be named Torgersen Hall.
Ultimately, cancer forced Torgersen to gain his nourishment through a tube inserted permanently into his stomach, and Parkinson's disease also took its toll. But he taught through the spring 2014 semester—and after his very last class, students offered a spontaneous standing ovation and then lined up for his autograph.
"He was a hard-driving, charismatic leader who came to be admired by everyone who knew him," said President Emeritus Charles W. Steger, who was a dean alongside Torgersen and served as vice president for development and university relations under him. "I was fortunate to have him as a friend. We all feel a sense of great loss."
Added President Timothy D. Sands, "As a professor, a dean, and a president, Paul Torgersen has made a tremendous impact upon our institution. We are deeply saddened to lose him, but will always remain inspired by his legacy."
Steven Mackay is the College of Engineering's communications manager.
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