In memoriam: Virginia Tech President Emeritus T. Marshall Hahn Jr.
May 30, 2016
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the time and location of a memorial service.
T. Marshall Hahn Jr. of Montgomery County, who transformed what was primarily a male military college into the comprehensive university now known as Virginia Tech, died May 29. He was 89.
A brilliant scientist with a legendarily photographic memory, Hahn had been a prodigy in all aspects of life. He earned a bachelor’s in physics from the University of Kentucky at 18 and, after serving a two-year stint in the Navy, received his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 23. At 35, he was hired as the 11th president of what was then Virginia Polytechnic Institute, becoming the youngest president of any land-grant institution in the country.
After his academic career, which culminated with the presidency of Virginia Tech, Hahn distinguished himself in industry, retiring in 1993 from Georgia Pacific Corporation as chief executive officer. But it was his tenure as chief executive of Virginia Tech for which he is likely to be best remembered.
“President Hahn was a trusted and supportive friend who displayed unwavering support for Virginia Tech,” said university President Emeritus Charles W. Steger. “During his transformative presidency, he opened access to higher education and laid the foundation to expand our research programs so that we could become a major national research university. These efforts benefited the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as society as a whole. He was the best of the best.”
Hahn began his presidency on July 2, 1962, 100 years to the day after Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which changed American higher education. It was a fitting date to begin, because Hahn proceeded to forever change the face of the institution then widely known as VPI. He diversified and broadened academic offerings, expanded admissions opportunities, particularly for women, and remade the physical plant.
Known as a prescient thinker and tough decision maker, Hahn recognized change was needed in response to the Baby Boomer demographic bulge. He felt it was neither morally responsible nor practical to remain a male military college. Knowing mandatory participation in the Corps of Cadets dampened applications, Hahn battled with alumni, and even with his own governing body, about dropping the mandatory military requirement. He prevailed, and applications immediately rose after the requirement ended in 1964.
Over the course of his almost 13 year presidency, Hahn added 30 undergraduate degree programs, such as art, German, history, marketing, management, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. No less than 20 graduate programs were added. He also created colleges of architecture, arts and sciences, and education.
It was this broadening of the institute’s academic profile and bolstering of graduate study that induced Hahn – always thinking ahead – to begin calling VPI a university, not a college. The Virginia General Assembly followed his lead, and in April 1970 conferred the university’s current, formal title: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
In addition to eliminating the military requirement, Hahn opened the doors fully to women. VPI had partnered with what then was Radford College – now Radford University – jointly managing both schools. Women could enroll at VPI in degree programs not offered at Radford, but functionally VPI was an all-male school. When Hahn severed the Radford College connection in 1964, female enrollment increased significantly at VPI.
Upon Hahn leaving Virginia Tech in 1974, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote: “Constructive change has been the hallmark of the Hahn administration. His willingness to implement changes, even at the risk of severe criticism and ridicule to himself, is the primary reason VPI had grown and prospered.”
During an era of significant campus unrest, Hahn clashed with student protestors on at least one memorable occasion. When students occupied Williams Hall in 1970, Hahn called state troopers to evict them, and they were later taken to Montgomery County’s jail.
Until the prolific building era of the Steger presidency, more buildings were built under Hahn than any other president. During an era when campus was known locally as “Crane City,” approximately 25 major buildings were constructed. Dormitories surged from the ground to house a rapidly expanding student body. Emphasizing athletics to build national exposure, Lane Stadium and Cassell Coliseum were built.
Long after stepping down, Hahn still helped get significant new buildings underway at Virginia Tech, as one of the university’s most generous donors. Four buildings on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus bear the Hahn name, in recognition of his accomplishments and the extraordinary level of philanthropy that he and his family have provided: Hahn Hall-South Wing, Hahn Hall-North Wing, the Hahn Hurst Basketball Practice Center, and the Peggy Lee Hahn Garden Pavilion and Horticulture Garden. There also is the T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Welcome Center located at the Virginia Tech's W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake.
“His presidential legacy would inspire all of us even if he never set foot on our campus again after stepping down,” current Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said of Hahn. “But of course that was not the case. His philanthropic legacy is truly extraordinary as well. I can think of no single person who has done as much for this university.”
In 1991, upon dedicating what is now Hahn-Hall South Wing, then Rector of the Board of Visitors Cliff Cutchins said of Hahn: “During his tenure and under his leadership massive changes took place that set the stage for national and international recognition that now regularly accrues to this university.”
The Class of 1969 was one of the first whose students spent all four years under Hahn. Along with future President Steger and future Head Football Coach Frank Beamer, it included Ray Smoot, who served as a university vice president, as treasurer, and as chief executive officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation.
“President Hahn’s leadership inspired me as a student,” Smoot said. “His decades of dedication to Virginia Tech continued to inspire me throughout my career. Anyone who cares about this university should be so grateful to him for his vision, his leadership, and his generosity.”
When Hahn came to VPI in 1954 to head the department of physics, the entire college enrolled about 4,000 students. When he became VPI’s president, it had slightly more than 6,000. By the time he left in 1974, there were 17,400 students at Virginia Tech.
In Virginia, Hahn’s impact was felt far beyond Blacksburg. Relied upon by then Virginia Governor Mills Godwin, Hahn chaired what later became known as the Hahn Commission that advocated for regional government. Today, regional planning commissions are a lasting legacy of that effort. He was an early advocate of the signature effort of the Godwin administration, creating the Virginia Community College System. Virginia Tech was the first college or university to accept community college students without loss of credit.
After leaving Virginia Tech, Hahn had a distinguished career at Georgia Pacific Corporation. Beginning as an executive vice president, he was appointed president in 1976 and CEO in 1983, serving in the latter role until retirement in 1993.
In his first seven years as chief executive sales doubled. He led the company’s push into the paper industry with a controversial hostile takeover of Great Northern Nekooska. Georgia Pacific became the largest paper maker in the U.S. at the time, and very profitable. His industry leadership was recognized when he was honored as CEO of the Year for the Forest Products and Lumber Industry for 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1990.
Hahn’s early academic career includes serving as lecturer in physics at the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School; physicist for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory; teaching fellow and research assistant at MIT; associate professor, professor, director of graduate study, and director of nuclear accelerator laboratories at the University of Kentucky; professor and department head of physics at VPI; and dean of arts and sciences at Kansas State.
He served as president for the Southern Association of State Universities, was a member of the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, and chaired the Virginia Metropolitan Areas Study Commission. He was named Virginia’s Outstanding Citizen in 1965 by Toastmaster’s International, and in 1970 received the Virginia Citizens Planning Association Award.
Known for his prodigious memory, it is said that Hahn once made an entire budget presentation to the General Assembly finance committees without referring to notes and recalling figures from memory. The Richmond Times Dispatch, in writing about him when he stepped down as university president, noted: “In state budget hearings, for instance, it is Hahn alone among the state’s college and university administrators who can speak for an hour, quoting statistics and unrelated points of information, without referring to a note.”
Hahn’s death is a significant loss that should be mourned far beyond the university community, said Debbie Petrine, rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.
“The Virginia Tech family, the commonwealth, and beyond and have lost a giant,” she said. “Dr. Hahn was truly a visionary and transformational leader, as well as an incredibly warm and generous gentleman. He will be missed.”
Hahn is survived by two daughters, Anne Hahn Hurst and Betty Hahn; a son-in-law, Doug Chancey; and three grandchildren, Erin McKelvy, Shane McKelvy, and Marshall Hurst. He was predeceased by a wife, Margaret Louise “Peggy” Hahn, and son, William Hahn.
A viewing will be held from 3-6 p.m. Friday, June 10, at McCoy Funeral Home, 150 Country Club Drive, Blacksburg. A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. the following day, Saturday, June 11, in Burruss Hall. A link to live video of the Saturday service will be posted to vt.edu before it begins.
Written by Larry Hincker and Albert Raboteau