Hundreds gathered at Virginia Tech on Monday afternoon to mourn and remember the life of Virginia Tech President Emeritus Charles William Steger Jr., who guided the university into the 21st century as its 15th president.
Steger ’69 — who served as president from 2000 to 2014 — was an architect, and he brought that discipline’s blend of art and science to the office of university president, developing and executing a vision for the future that made him one of the most influential presidents in Virginia Tech’s 146-year history. He died May 6 at his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He was 70.
The Rev. Michael Ellerbrock offered a letter to Steger on behalf of the Hokies who gathered to remember him at the Moss Arts Center, as well as others whose lives were touched by his legacy.
“Dear Charles,” Ellerbrock began. “We celebrate today as family and friends because you raised the bar. An architect who saw beyond time and place, you asked for our best and challenged our imagination. Your Hokie ambassadors make a difference both near and far. It’s been a privilege, Charles, and now our consolation. Well done, Mr. President, well done. We love you. Amen.”
Christopher Steger, Charles’ son, talked about his father's upbringing in Buckingham County, Virginia, on a farm along the James River. Despite Charles’ reputation for almost never being out of a suit or tie, he was at heart a “country boy” who enjoyed being among horses and cattle and playing bluegrass music on his guitar, Christopher said. Charles Steger could drive a hard deal, he said, but he was also kind to people when he didn’t have to be.
“It would be a fitting tribute” to Charles, Christopher said, "if someday soon you would take an extra moment to be kind to be someone — even when you don’t have to. And maybe wear a tie.”
President Tim Sands opened and closed the memorial service.
“His legacy will continue, as strong and as enduring as the Hokie Stone around us,” Sands said. “For me, those stones always call to mind his spirit and his vision.”
Others praised Steger’s vision and accomplishments. Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, called him “the man who was the architect of what we know as the modern-day Virginia Tech.”
Steger Memorial Service
President Tim Sands speaks during the memorial service for President Emeritus Charles Steger
Northam cited Steger’s partnership with Carilion Clinic CEO Ed Murphy, who passed away in October 2017, to create the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, which not only prepares future doctors and health care providers but serves as an economic catalyst in Roanoke.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner served as governor from 2002-2006, a time that overlapped with Steger's presidency. He recalled Steger’s role in getting Virginia Tech into the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, as well as in participating in a difficult political fight for tax reform that same year. That budget fight was challenging, Warner said, but Steger didn’t flinch.
“Charles Steger knew what was best for Virginia Tech and importantly best for Virginia, and he took that plunge without hesitation or reservation,” Warner said.
Under Steger’s leadership, Virginia Tech charted a course to become a top research university; embarked upon a groundbreaking partnership with Carilion Clinic that led to the creation of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute; joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004; embraced a business model that invested in seven research institutes; built 40 major new buildings; elevated its presence in Northern Virginia by establishing the National Capital Region operations and building a state-of-the-art office and research facility in Arlington; and endured the tragedy of April 16, 2007, which saw the loss of 32 faculty members and students whose lives were taken.
A Fellow in the American Institute of Architects, Steger earned three Virginia Tech degrees: a bachelor's degree in 1970 and a master's degree in 1971, both in architecture; and a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and engineering in 1978. He left a private-sector career in 1976 to pursue his passion for teaching at Virginia Tech.
In addition to serving as a faculty member and a college dean, Steger served as acting vice president for public service and then vice president for development and university relations, before becoming president in 2000. He was a member of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and Legacy Society.
When he became president in 2000, Steger assessed where the university stood. "As we enter a new period of challenge and change, we are fortunate that Virginia Tech enjoys a great deal of positive momentum," Steger said in his inauguration speech. "Our programs are solid and well recognized, our entering class this fall will be the most qualified in history, and our private resources have grown significantly. Now we must capitalize on this momentum to reach a new level of excellence and service.”
John Lawson, who served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors from 2002-2010 and was rector of the board from 2008-2010, remembered that speech at the memorial service.
“When he first did his inaugural address, he started taking the university in a new direction,” Lawson said. “We were going to be not good but the best research university in the country. That was his goal. Learning, discovery, and engagement was our strategic plan and direction. He made that happen so quickly.”
Virginia Tech Foundation CEO Emeritus Raymond Smoot Jr. entered Virginia Tech as a student in the fall of 1965 along with Steger and a number of other individuals who would go on to transform the university. Smoot remembered waiting in line at the Grove to meet then-President T. Marshall Hahn, who charted a course to transform Virginia Tech from a regional military college into an internationally renowned land-grant research university.
“Thus began a 50-year process in which Charles played a central and defining role, playing as a faculty member, a dean, a vice president, and for 14 years as president of Virginia Tech,” Smoot said.
Ben J. Davenport Jr., whose service to the university includes terms on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, including two years as rector, said that Steger’s own service and vision will continue to change the world well after his death.
“He was a Virginian, and he was a Hokie,” Davenport said. “He was a president mindful of both the responsibility and the potential of his office to improve the lives of others. A fine person to work with or for, and a person whose life’s work surrounds us today and embodies our university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). His work will serve well generations to come in the commonwealth, in the nation, and in the world.”
Written by Mason Adams