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In memoriam: Clifton C. “Cliff” Garvin Jr., an innovative leader in business and philanthropy

April 27, 2016

Photograph of Clifton C. Garvin Jr.
Clifton C. Garvin Jr.

Clifton C. “Cliff” Garvin Jr., retired board chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Corporation (now Exxon Mobil Corp.), whose dedicated service and philanthropy set an example at Virginia Tech, died on April 17. He was 94.

A member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors from 1988 to 1996, Garvin served as rector for five years, from 1991 to 1996.

In recognition of his numerous accomplishments, in 1983 Garvin was the first ever recipient of Virginia Tech’s University Distinguished Achievement Award. In 1997, he was presented the William H. Ruffner Medal, the university's highest honor, and he received the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 2001. Along with his wife, Thelma, Garvin was a member of the President’s Circle within the Ut Prosim Society of the university’s most generous donors.

Garvin served on the board of the Virginia Tech Foundation; was vice chairman of the Campaign for Excellence, Virginia Tech's first national fundraising campaign; chaired the Virginia Tech Annual Fund; and was a member of the Corporate Development Council and the Council of 100 in the College of Engineering.

“Clifton Garvin was an individual who combined an extraordinary life experience with an intellect and sense of humanity that inspired all of us who were fortunate enough to work closely with him,” Virginia Tech President Emeritus Charles W. Steger said. “He was the best of the best. I will look back upon the years during which I was associated with him with admiration, gratitude, and genuine affection. He loved Virginia Tech and motivated us all to make it a better place.”

A native of Portsmouth, Garvin graduated from Virginia Tech with honors in 1943, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. According to his obituary, Garvin served three years as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army, making multiple landings in the South Pacific during World War II, before returning to Blacksburg, where in 1947 he completed a master's in chemical engineering.

That year he also joined the precursor of Exxon, starting out as a process engineer at the corporation’s facility in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1968, Garvin was elected to the board, and in 1972 was elected president. He became chairman and chief executive officer in 1973 and served in that capacity until he retired in 1986.

Minnis Ridenour, a retired executive vice president and chief operating officer of Virginia Tech, said Garvin “was a true gentleman, who in his soft but firm voice taught us how to be responsible leaders, to challenge ourselves by thinking deeply and broadly about the university, and to respect and listen to those we were privileged to serve as leaders of Virginia Tech.”

A dedicated community and business leader, Garvin served as member and director of numerous national and international corporations, including Citicorp and Citibank, Hospital Corporation of America, Johnson & Johnson, J.C. Penney Inc., PepsiCo Inc., Georgia Pacific, and TRW Inc. (now part of Northrop Grumman). He served as vice chairman of the Board of Managers of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and vice president of the Board of Trust at Vanderbilt University. 

Garvin also served on the board of Saudi Aramco. He was a director of the Americas Society, and a member of the Business Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and the Business Roundtable.  

Garvin held honorary doctorate degrees from New York University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Georgetown University. Other awards he received included the Distinguished Service Award from the Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the C. Walter Nichols Award from the New York University Graduate School of Business.

Garvin is survived by his wife of 72 years, four children, 10 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren.

Written by Erica Stacy

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