Alumni couple Willis Blackwood and Mary Nolen Blackwood, of Richmond, Virginia, and Bonita Springs, Florida, recently donated $2 million to name and endow the director’s position within the rapidly growing Virginia Tech Program in Real Estate.

Their gift is the largest ever made to the program, which began with four students in August 2013 and has grown to more than 200 undergraduates.

“Virginia Tech is on the leading edge in this industry,” said Willis Blackwood ’72, who is the founder and president of Blackwood Development Company Inc., a privately owned real estate firm in Richmond, Virginia. “Students from this program are extremely valuable to future employers because they get a comprehensive foundation in the industry that other schools just don’t provide.”

The Blackwoods have supported the Program in Real Estate since its inception. Willis Blackwood, who earned his Virginia Tech bachelor’s degree in business administration and has an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University, chairs the Virginia Tech Real Estate Industry Advisory Board. Mary Nolen Blackwood '73 earned her Virginia Tech bachelor’s degree in psychology and has a master’s in health administration from what is now the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. In 2014, the Blackwoods endowed the Willis and Mary Blackwood Junior Faculty Fellowship, now held by Erin Hopkins, an assistant professor of property management.

“Willis promotes the program in significant and important ways, and we are deeply grateful,” said Kevin Boyle, director of the Program in Real Estate, which had 41 graduates in spring 2017. “His vision and support helps us recruit top students and bring great industry people into the program. He’s an inspiration to our program’s students, faculty, and supporters.”

Willis Blackwood said he and his wife hoped their gift would inspire other leaders in the real estate industry to support the Program in Real Estate and its students as well.

“One thing Tech does very well is that it generates employable graduates,” said Blackwood, whose firm primarily focuses on the retail sector. “Its programs are geared toward graduates going out ready to excel in their jobs and make a difference. That goes back to the university’s land-grant mission.”

Virginia Tech alumni Willis Blackwood '72 and Mary Nolen Blackwood '73
Willis Blackwood ’72 and Mary Nolen Blackwood ’73 are deeply involved in multiple areas across Virginia Tech as volunteers and donors. In 2017, the university’s new indoor golf facility was named in their honor.

The Program in Real Estate is an academic unit in the Pamplin College of Business, in collaboration with the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Engineering, and Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Students can earn a bachelor of science in real estate or a real-estate minor through Pamplin.

The program’s curriculum includes the many aspects of real estate, including planning, construction, finance, property management, and sales. Students choose a particular area of focus, but learn about all areas. Those majoring in real estate choose a second major or minor in a related field to further their education and professional preparation.

Boyle said the Blackwoods’ gift will help students by funding experiential-learning opportunities and access to industry-leading financial and market-analysis software. The gift will also help connect students with industry professionals through short courses on campus and off-campus visits, he added.

“From the beginning, we have provided a uniquely broad program that most other universities in the country can’t match,” Boyle said. “Our multidisciplinary academic resources, and the support of leaders like Willis and Mary, give us a competitive advantage and make our graduates stand out.”

Blackwood said a broad range of knowledge was critical to his success in the real estate industry. Over the course of his career, he has worked to develop more than 2 million square feet of retail space as a company owner.

When he has recruited prospective students to join the Program in Real Estate, Willis Blackwood has emphasized the range of opportunities in the industry that are available for highly motivated individuals.

“If somebody likes diversity in their work challenges, it’s a fun industry to be in,” he said. “It’s people oriented, it’s bricks-and-mortar oriented, it’s law, it’s accounting, it’s a lot of different things. It’s entrepreneurial, and the sky’s the limit for anybody that wants to go out and work hard and be creative.”

Not long after earning his bachelor’s from Virginia Tech, Willis Blackwood got his first job in real estate. He knew little about the field, so his employer had to provide him extensive training.

That sort of corporate investment isn’t required for graduates of the Program in Real Estate, he said, because they leave Virginia Tech ready to contribute.

“My company sent me to their West Coast corporate office for training, lease drafting, easements, surveys, and construction-related things,” Blackwood said. “Virginia Tech students are getting that even before they are graduating. Their employers don’t have to spend a year training them on basic real estate items, because they’re ahead of their contemporaries who are getting out of other schools.”

Written by Rich Polikoff