Virginia Smith celebrates 80 years as alumna
June 6, 2019
A lot can change in 80 years, but many would say Virginia Teske Smith’s favorite aspect of Virginia Tech has stood the test of time.
“Every person on campus spoke to a stranger, every stranger. They just said hello or something,” said the member of the Class of 1939. “When you’d come back several years later and walk the campus and everyone greeted you, it was just such an overwhelming experience.”
Having just celebrated her 100th birthday, Virginia Smith returned to Blacksburg to celebrate her 80th reunion in May. Accompanied by her son, Henry B. Smith III '69, she was acknowledged as a Virginia Tech Centenarian and awarded a piece of Hokie Stone by the Old Guard Society of Golden Alumni during their annual celebration.
“It’s always wonderful to come back here,” Virginia Smith said.
The daughter of Virginia Tech horticulture professor August Henry Teske, Virginia Smith was 8 years old when the family moved to Blacksburg. She recalls immediately falling in love with the area, specifically noting the charm of music being played in what was then a wooded area between the Newman Library and downtown Blacksburg.
“They had Sunday concerts, and everybody would come from town and the college,” Virginia Smith said. “It was just incredible. I loved growing up on this campus.”
Following her graduation from Blacksburg High School, Virginia Smith enrolled to study science at Virginia Tech, and though women had been admitted as students since 1921, she found herself largely in the minority.
“Frequently I was the only woman in a class,” Virginia Smith said. “It was kind of strange, but when we were in a lab and they said, ‘pick your partners,’ I was so fortunate, some nice young man would always ask if he could be my partner.”
Her time at Tech also led her to picking a more long-term partner, her husband, Henry B. Smith Jr., who was a graduate student studying chemical engineering at the time.
“We lived on faculty row. The last house on faculty row, very close to the Duck Pond,” Virginia Smith said. “That year, they had no housing for graduate students, and they asked if anyone on faculty row had space if they would rent out to graduate students. All of our children were gone in my mom’s house, so she had a big house and she had four chemical engineers that rented rooms … so that’s how I met my husband.”
Despite hitting it off, the pair planned to go their separate ways following their graduation in 1939. Fate had other plans, however, as Virginia Smith learned upon returning from a job interview at Cincinnati General Hospital.
“I interviewed in Cincinnati, and I got the job and low and behold, he had accepted a fellowship at the University of Cincinnati [at the same time.] Neither of us knew because I had just got the job on my way home,” she said.
The couple married and were soon in the midst of raising five children while relocating to numerous states as required by Henry B. Smith Jr.’s ever-evolving career. The chemical engineer taught at Bucknell University, helped develop the flamethrower tank for the United States Army, and helped develop Dial Soap and Maxwell House Instant Coffee. In 1965, Henry B. Smith Jr. joined North Carolina State University as associate dean of engineering for research and graduate programs and professor of chemical engineering, and in 1979, he was named the university’s vice provost and dean for research.
No matter where the family lived, they rarely went long between visits to Blacksburg, where August Teske taught several agriculture classes and did Extension work focused on fruit.
“I not only lived here growing up, but I’ve kept in contact ever since,” Virginia Smith said. “We used to visit mother and dad, and the first thing the kids would do is go down to the creamery to get ice cream.”
Those memories had a lasting impression on Henry B. Smith III, who graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1969 and is scheduled to join the Old Guard Society of Golden Alumni during his class’ 50th reunion this fall.
“Virginia Tech was part of my growing up, so it was natural for me to come here,” Henry B. Smith III said.
He fondly recalled those visits to campus, which included helping his grandfather with tasks on the campus’ nearby fruit orchards during the hot summer months.
“He was quite the character,” Henry B. Smith III said.
Following August Teske’s 1976 death, the family established the endowed A.H. and L.B. Teske Scholarship to support horticulture students in the fruit industry.
Virginia Tech has blossomed tremendously during the decades that followed, which Henry B. Smith III credits to the university’s leaders.
“I have been really impressed with how strong the leadership has been here and how well they have managed the growth of the university. Not just growth for growth’s sake, but very specific growth with a purpose,” Henry B. Smith III said.
His mother agreed and credited a similarly forward-focused mentality with her own century of success.
“All I can say is, look to the future,” Virginia Smith said.
Written by Travis Williams