Jerry Via, assistant dean of undergraduate instruction in the Virginia Tech College of Science and an instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences, retired earlier this month after 37 years of teaching, mentoring, and making students laugh.
More than 20,000 students took Via’s Introduction to Biology class, with records indicating 17,500 students took the course under Via since 1985 when such numbers were first begun. Via joined Virginia Tech in 1979. His class not only catered to students from the College of Science, but from across the university. He joined the dean’s staff as assistant dean for undergraduate instruction in 1989, starting with the College of Arts and Science and its split through to the current College of Science, formed in 2003.
In many cases, Via was among the first faces that prospective students and their families see as they look for the best college to fit their needs. “Jerry has a real knack for making prospective students and their families feel welcome as he talks with them about the college and its programs during small group information session and even large open houses,” said Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science.
“Jerry Via exemplifies the guiding ethos of Virginia Tech -- 'That I May Serve,'" said Wanda Hankins Dean, vice provost for enrollment and degree management. “He is that ‘go-to’ person who will always be willing to talk to a group, a family, or a student about the value of a Virginia Tech education. Through his teaching, his outreach, and his mentoring of students, Jerry demonstrates an overabundance of extending grace and caring to all with whom he interacts. I congratulate him on his retirement.”
During his time as an associate dean, Via led scores of orientation sessions for first-year, transfer and international students for the College of Science, using his trademark sense of humor as he did in class. He led students in rounds of the Hokie Pokie. Traditional garb for orientation had him in a white lab coat and an Albert Einstein wig.
Via also constantly met one-on-one with current students and their families, mentoring students through tough times personal or academic. Tomohiro Esckew of Woodbridge, Virginia, and a senior in the Department of Biochemistry, credits Via with helping him adjust to university life. A native of Namazu, Japan, Eskew said he struggled socially and academically until he met with Via. “[He gave] me the self-confidence to keep fighting for my dreams and to never give up. He was able to easily relate with me, no matter what the situation, which made speaking to him very comfortable and to easily open up to him.”
“The things you need to know about Dr. Via is that he cared about everyone he came in contact with, he wanted his advisees to succeed, he knew everyone on campus, and he loved Virginia Tech,” said Christopher Bayne, a 2006 Virginia Tech alumnus with a bachelor of science in psychology and bachelor of arts English, and now a pediatric urology fellow at Children's National in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes you meet people in life who catapult you to great heights. Dr. Via was that for me -- he knew what I wanted to do, and he helped me do it. He motivated me. In my mind, he's one of the Hokie greats.”
Susan Haymore, director of undergraduate advising for the College of Science, said Via always kept faith in students. “He has been a super hero to so many at Virginia Tech including me. There have been numerous students ready to throw in the towel and forget about a degree,” she said. “Like super heros do, he swoops in, picks them up, and provides them with the encouragement and mentorship they need.”
Charlotte Parks, a College of Science recruiter and academic adviser, said an international student last year could not afford to return home, nor food when he remained in Blacksburg. Via helped provide the student food. “Students come to meet with Jerry when they are dealing with some of the most horrible experiences that anyone could ever endure,” she said. “Not only does Jerry make them feel at ease, but he truly does everything possible to help those students.”
In class, Via would dress up as any assortment of characters every Halloween, recently choosing Hagrid, the gentle gamekeeper human/giant from the Harry Potter book and film series. The costume was more than appropriate. Via holds a doctoral degree in zoology from Virginia Tech, and his research focuses on the ecology and natural history of birds. He also serves as president of the New River Valley Bird Club.
Via also is known for his sense of humor. He regularly carted around fake skeletons around campus, leaving them on benches with cardboard messages of good cheer, or bringing them to class, or using them as décor in the College of Science administration offices at Halloween.
Via said he will volunteer with bird-related projects, as well as Good Samaritan Hospice. “I hope to have the time to finish many of my projects inside and outside of the house,” he said. “Finally I will remain on call for any needs of my College of Science family.”