When Cecil P. Balderson returns to Virginia Tech as part of this weekend’s homecoming activities, he will experience a campus far different than the one he attended.
Balderson was a student in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets from 1932 to 1934. He’s 103 years old and believed to be the university’s oldest living alumnus.
Participation in the Corps of Cadets wasn’t voluntary until 1964.
Of course, he remembers Virginia Tech as “VPI.” The university’s name had been Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute since 1896, and most people simply called it “VPI.” The name didn’t officially change to Virginia Polytechnic Institute until 1944 and then then to today’s Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University until 1970.
Even though Balderson didn’t graduate — he had to leave to help out with the family farm during the Great Depression — he is a dyed-in-the-wool Hokie. He remembers sitting with fellow cadets on the wall at the school’s entrance, the many dances he attended at the Cotillion Club, his admiration for his professors, and his freshman-year experiences.
Enrollment was 1,817 students. Julian Burruss, the university’s eighth president, was in office and focused on three immediate reforms: a revision of programs of instruction and of administrative structure, a better organization for student life, and an increase in physical accommodations to meet the demands of an influx of students returning from World War I.
Balderson’s strongest memories are of his first year, when freshmen were called “rats,” and his introduction to the corps by the “sophs,” who at times were not particularly benevolent to the nervous freshmen, Balderson said.
Even with stories of cold water, upperclass students who had a bit more chow than the freshmen, and frigid nights of guard duty, Balderson and his classmates persevered.
Many of them excelled to become respected leaders in both the public and private sectors. For example, his classmate, W. Thomas Rice, became a general in the U.S. Army, was a railroad executive, served on Virginia Tech Board of Visitors from 1961 to 1968, and is the namesake of the corps’ Major General W. Thomas Rice Center for Leader Development.
Even though he wasn’t able to finish his education at Virginia Tech, Balderson credits much of his success to his time in the corps.
He met his wife of 71 years, Violet (who died in 2007), at the Williamsburg Hotel in Richmond, where he was a desk clerk. Balderson said he made a great desk clerk, but he hated the job.
He courted Violet for seven weeks before she agreed to marry him, and soon they had a son. Born in 1939, Cecil Jr. is also a corps alumnus, graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering with the Class of 1961.
After his tenure as desk clerk, Balderson worked as a sales rep for Texaco and later for the Balcrank Corporation. In 1963, he bought the Central Virginia Oil Company, where he retired in 1977.
Balderson played golf until he was 90, served as a past state president for the Lions Club International, and still attends church on Sundays. He loves music and considers himself to be a “pretty darned good” harmonica player.
He lives independently, with daily assistance, at his home in Waynesboro, Virginia, which is decorated with quite a few Virginia Tech and Gobbler collectibles.
On Friday, he and his son are planning to meet in Blacksburg to be part of the reviewing party for the corps’ Pass in Review. Part of the university’s homecoming tradition, the parade will welcome members of the Class of 1966 back to campus to celebrate their entrance into the Old Guard.
The parade will be at 3:30 p.m. on the Drillfield. Skipper, the corps cannon, will be fired at the first note of the National Anthem and the first note of “Tech Triumph.”
Written by Samantha Riggin, museum curator for the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.