When Virginia Tech first asked him to serve in early 1993, Heywood Fralin didn’t hesitate.

His older brother, Horace Fralin ’48, a longtime Hokie, successful leader in education and philanthropy, and new member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, had died from cancer after attending only one meeting.

That’s when Heywood Fralin received a telephone call from then-Virginia Tech President James D. McComas.

“Jim called me and he said ‘I have a crazy question for you.’ That’s how he worded it,” said Fralin, who had broken with his two older brothers by attending the University of Virginia instead of Virginia Tech. “He asked me if the governor were willing to appoint me to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors for Horace’s unexpired term, would I be willing to serve. I said, ‘Jim, if you’re crazy enough to ask, I’m crazy enough to serve.’”

On that day in 1993, Fralin demonstrated his commitment to the university motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) by agreeing to serve out the remainder of his late brother’s term.

Now, in 2018, Fralin is again demonstrating his commitment to serve by making the largest ever gift to  Virginia Tech. Along with the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust, Fralin and his wife, Cynthia, have committed $50 million to support biomedical research at the newly named Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, part of the expanding Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke.

“This transformative gift dramatically increases what we can accomplish in biomedical research,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “We are incredibly grateful for this support and confident it will lead to powerful discoveries that improve lives.

Fralin family
From left, Robert Fralin, William Fralin, Katherine Fralin Walker, Heywood Fralin, and Cynthia Fralin attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the Fralin Life Science Institute in 2016.

“Thanks to Heywood and Cynthia Fralin and the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust, we’re much better positioned to recruit additional, world-leading researchers to address biomedical problems of global scope,” said Michael J. Friedlander, the executive director of the research institute and the vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech.

The record-breaking commitment of support is in keeping with Fralin’s lifetime legacy of service — to Virginia Tech, to his alma mater the University of Virginia, to the Roanoke Valley, to Virginia, and beyond.

“Heywood Fralin has already made a tremendous impact on the educational landscape of Virginia,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. “Now, he’s helping take initiatives at the VTC Health Sciences and Technology Campus, which already have transformed the Roanoke economy, to a new level.”

“Heywood has set a new bar for civic engagement,” said Leon Harris, chairman of Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art and recipient of the 2018 William H. Ruffner Medal, Virginia Tech's highest honor. “This donation marks a giant leap for the emerging academic health center in Roanoke.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte has represented the 6th Congressional District, which includes Roanoke, since 1992.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Heywood Fralin throughout my time in Congress,” Goodlatte said. “He has an extraordinary vision for the Roanoke Valley, along with the determination and means to make it happen.”

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith represents the 9th Congressional District, which covers much of Southwest Virginia, including Blacksburg, site of Virginia Tech’s largest campus.

“Strengthening the ties between the New River and Roanoke valleys is important for the long-term future of both regions,” Griffith said. “We’re fortunate to have visionary people like Heywood Fralin and forward-looking institutions like Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic. They can see the big picture and are bold enough to take actions right now that will benefit our communities for generations to come.”

Fralin is a Roanoke-born attorney, businessman, health care executive, and patron of the arts. He’s served as a member of both the Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia boards of visitors and made giant strides in bringing the Roanoke and New River valleys together.

Ask him for his title, though, and he doesn’t hesitate: “Husband.”

That answer speaks not just to his devotion to his wife, but to his family and his community in Roanoke, where he was born the youngest of three brothers. His parents, Grover Gordon Fralin and Ollie Elizabeth Fralin, moved to the city from rural Franklin County in the 1920s.

“My father only had a seventh-grade education, but he was an entrepreneur and was very interested in providing for his family,” Fralin said. “He worked hard every day and began a building construction business. Meanwhile, our mother was very interested in her children and thought the best way to promote our future was to make sure that we were well educated.”

Fralin built a firm work ethic from an early age, beginning with his first job as a paperboy in the 1950s at age 13.

His older brothers turned to Virginia Tech for their undergraduate degrees and both went on to success. G. Wayne Fralin was a medical doctor. Horace Fralin built a life around construction, health care, education, and philanthropy. The Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech is named in honor of him and his wife, Ann, and he received the university’s Ruffner Medal in 1992.

Heywood Fralin took a different path, attending the University of Virginia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He completed his education with a law degree from American University and went to work as a practicing attorney.

“Because my brothers went to Virginia Tech, I wanted to do something different,” Fralin said. “That was a great disappointment to my mother, because she thought Virginia Tech was a much better fit.”

Fralin never drifted far from Virginia Tech, though. His family history and constant feuding over sports rivalries kept him close to his brother’s alma mater. And when President McComas asked him to serve out his late brother’s term on the Board of Visitors, Fralin’s response and commitment to service demonstrated that he’s a Hokie at heart, if not in experience. His seven years on the Board of Visitors have informed his work ever since.

“Serving on the Board of Visitors gave me huge insight into Virginia Tech and what it can do not only for the region, but for the state and for the world,” Fralin said. “There are so many things that are impressive about Virginia Tech, but most impressive of all are the students. There is just a sense of dedication at Virginia Tech that’s unlike any university I’ve ever seen. You know, the motto of Ut Prosim is something that is instilled in every student at Virginia Tech. Every Tech graduate is proud of the fact — they don’t keep it a secret. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and just a wonderful thing to have.”

Fralin leveraged the experience when he later served eight years on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.

“I told them that everything that I learned, I learned on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors,” Fralin said. “It was not always well received by some of my colleagues, but it was a fun thing to say.”

Heywood Fralin’s service on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors has benefited all of Virginia’s colleges and universities, and it has benefited UVA in special ways,” said John Casteen, former UVA president. “No other Virginian has served as rector of UVA, a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, and subsequently chaired the State Council of Higher Education. Heywood knows as much about the public colleges and universities and about shaping them for the public good as anyone ever has. His special mark in Blacksburg, in Roanoke, in Charlottesville, in Richmond — across Virginia generally — has been an unfailing clarity about service to Virginia’s people. All of us are in his debt.”

Fralin is chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, commonly known as SCHEV. He has chaired the Virginia Business Council. He also served as a member of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation, and Investment. He served as a member of the Virginia Growth and Opportunity (Go Virginia) Board, as well as a member of the Virginia Research Investment Committee (VRIC).

“Few people care more selflessly about Virginia higher education than Heywood Fralin,” said SCHEV Director Peter Blake. “Whenever a question arises about how our colleges and universities can address Virginia’s challenges, Mr. Fralin answers the call. His deep commitment not only to Virginia Tech, but also to institutions across the commonwealth, has been a hallmark of Mr. Fralin’s life and career.”

Fralin and his wife, Cynthia, have pledged to bequeath at their death their collection of works by American artists to the University of Virginia, which resulted in the naming of the Fralin Art Museum on its campus. He also serves as vice chair of Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art.

“Heywood has made a meaningful, long-lasting impact on the Taubman Museum of Art, from his board leadership to his deep knowledge about and help with acquiring art,” said the museum’s executive director, Cindy Petersen. “His passion for the arts, for Roanoke, and for the commonwealth, is inspiring.”

Heywood Fralin become a central figure in the Roanoke Valley and one of its most outspoken advocates.

“I consider Heywood Fralin a true, longtime leader in our community,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. “Heywood is a person who’s committed to making this community, and the state, better. I say that because not only is he a major driver in the Biomedical Research Institute, but he participates in community meetings and he has contributed to our basketball league. He’s not a person who gets a lot of headlines, but he’s intricately involved in the community, and it shows. He’s what this community needs. We are where we are right now because of the drive and the commitment of people like Heywood Fralin.”

Fralin’s vision for regional cooperation and investment in growing industries has undergirded Roanoke’s economic transformation from a blue-collar railroad hub into a forward-looking, tech-savvy outdoors mountain city.

“I grew up in Roanoke when Norfolk and Western was everything,” Fralin said. “The idea that Norfolk and Western, now Norfolk Southern, would ever leave Roanoke was unheard of. We all believed that Norfolk Southern would be here forever. But, as we all know, this economy has moved from an energy-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Today, we are very reliant on three things: small start-up businesses, which I believe are going to be the future of the entire nation; technology; and the health care enterprises that are being created in our area through Virginia Tech and Carilion. The evolution of the VTC School of Medicine and the research institute, and the emergence of a VTC Academic Health Center to help discoveries come to market and be applied, is going to be the future of our region. ”

Now, with his commitment to name the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Heywood Fralin is making a significant investment into his vision. The contribution builds on his personal and family history of service and philanthropy, which reaches across the state, touching on research, education, the arts, and economic development.

“I tend to think in terms not only of Roanoke, but Roanoke’s involvement in the entire state,” Fralin said. “I have chosen to be involved in both the state and in the locality. I just believe that it’s the responsibility of everyone to give back to their community and to leave things better than they found them.”

— Written by John Pastor and Mason Adams