Virginia Tech Magazine
In Retrospect
Winter 2010
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Frank Leigh Robeson: A legacy of achievementt by Clara B. Cox M.A. '84
Decades before distance learning and teleconferencing became standard fare, Frank Leigh Robeson taught physics to college and university students throughout the country--without ever leaving Blacksburg.

Robeson, an alumnus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (shortened to VPI; today's Virginia Tech) who became a professor at his alma mater, wrote a textbook on physics that dominated the field for several years and was considered by many to be the best textbook of its time. First printed in 1942 by the Macmillan Company, the book, entitled Physics, sold more than 34,000 copies, and the 750-page tome, which cost $3.75 for the first edition, was reprinted eight times.

Robeson's son, Andrew, also a VPI alumnus and retired VPI faculty member, remembers his father "spending long hours in his study working on his textbook," completing his pages on a portable manual typewriter. "My father was most proud of the book, which was very basic. His technique was to make students learn the subject, not memorize it. He derived physics equations from first principles for his book."

Frank Robeson was born in 1884 in Farmville, Va., where the frail youngster became a remarkable high school student. His brothers attended Hampden-Sidney College, but a consumption scare at that school led his father, George, to send 17-year-old Frank to VPI in 1901 with the instructions "to keep healthy whether you learn anything or not."

He did learn something. Nicknamed "Scribe" because he was studious and scholarly, Robeson graduated first in his class in 1904. By then, he had already begun drawing plans for many campus buildings and faculty houses, most likely using the set of drawing instruments he received for being the best student in mechanical drawing. According to a 1969 Roanoke Times article, "He worked on the old laundry building, several faculty houses, what is now the home management house, and the old faculty center. Through the years, he planned 38 different structures on and off campus and around the state. He still expresses satisfaction at the years he spent working on the university's physical planning committee."

Money was scarce for the physics department, and Robeson's wife would ask her friends "to save things like shoe horns and corset stays. He needed them for some contraption in the laboratory."
After graduating, Robeson apparently worked with his father at a manufacturing company in Farmville. "I found out that I was in business to please my father, and he was in business to please me. So we both quit," Robeson said in later years.

He returned to VPI as an assistant in mathematics and drawing, becoming an instructor in mathematics and graphics the next year and, by 1910, an instructor in mathematics and experimental engineering. He was named an associate professor of physics in 1913, a full professor in 1917, and head of the physics department in 1936. Along the way, he took two leaves of absence, one to earn a master's degree from Columbia University and the second to complete a Ph.D at Johns Hopkins.

Robeson married Mary Anna Matthews, daughter of VPI's superintendent of buildings and grounds, in 1912, and the couple had four daughters and a son.

Andrew, the youngest, remembers his father spending "long days" in Davidson Hall. "He was there so much of the time," Andrew recalls, "that the picture postcard of Davidson Hall sold at the drugstores in town had one car parked in front--our old 1937 Ford."

Money was hard to come by for the physics department, and Robeson's wife often asked her friends "to save things like shoe horns and corset stays. He needed them for some contraption in the laboratory." Said Robeson, "We had to make do with what we had."

He did, however, escape the confines of his department, serving twice on the Blacksburg Town Council; being named president-elect of the Virginia Academy of Science; becoming a charter member of the VPI chapter of Phi Kappa Phi; and holding memberships in the American Physical Society, Omicron Delta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and Tau Beta Pi. His professional status earned him the designation of Fellow in the American Academy of Science.

Robeson resigned in 1954, to be replaced by T. Marshall Hahn, later to become one of VPI's greatest presidents. By a strange twist of fate, Hahn's first recruit to his faculty was the son of his predecessor.

In 1969, VPI honored its illustrious alumnus by naming the physics building Robeson Hall. "Scribe" died in 1974, but his spirit endures--in a portrait of him that hangs in the Robeson Room, paneled in a rich walnut that he collected himself; in samples of his meticulous drawings displayed in the building; in a department molded by his leadership; in the memories of his children; and in the Hokie Stone building that serves as a monument to his achievements.

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

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