Alumnus reflects on setting new path at Virginia Tech
February 19, 2020
A flyer on a bulletin board in the math department office at Paine College caught Franklin McKie’s eye and led him to making history at Virginia Tech.
“It said, ‘VPI, Department of Statistics,’ and I said, hmm, VPI? Never heard of it,” said McKie, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the college in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. “I sent in my application and was offered a full fellowship and stipend within a week or so."
McKie was among a trio of trailblazers who became the first Black students to earn advanced degrees at Virginia Tech. In 1970, McKie earned a master’s degree in statistics, as did Camilla Brooks, while Alphonso Smith earned a doctorate in fisheries and wildlife. All three will be recognized at the Black Alumni Reunion in April.
The fact that he was a trailblazer went without recognition at the time and thus remained unknown to McKie for decades.
“I didn’t know it until I was reading a Virginia Tech publication 15, 20 years ago,” said McKie in January 2020. “I was quite surprised and honored.”
The first of his family to earn a college degree, McKie had scarcely been beyond the borders of Georgia and South Carolina before coming to Blacksburg for graduate school in 1966.
“When I left home I had $28 and a Texaco credit card in my pocket, and by the end of the day had $650,” he said. “That was more money than I had had in my lifetime, at one time.”
The money was the monthly stipend for the fellowship award. Although new to the area, McKie quickly made friends with his fellow student peers and professors as an outfielder in the faculty-graduate intramural softball league. He also was active on the statistics department’s basketball and volleyball teams.
At the time, McKie was one of just a handful of Black students on campus. He recalled there being 16 undergraduates, including the first Black females on campus, and four graduate students. There weren’t any faculty or staff members who were Black, but there was one research associate who helped provide Virginia Tech’s Black population opportunities to bond.
“He would have the 20 of us over to his apartment every Saturday night,” McKie said.
McKie said there was also a lack of diversity among Virginia Tech’s athletic teams when he first arrived on campus, particularly when it came to football.
“I used to root for the other teams because they had Black players and Tech was lily white," McKie said. “But I was pulling for Tech as soon as they started getting Black players.”
McKie witnessed John Dobbins break the Hokie football team’s color barrier in 1970 and Charlie Limbscomb become the first Black player to start on the men’s varsity basketball team in 1969.
Despite the campus’ racial dynamics, McKie said he doesn’t recall any conflict or unpleasant experiences.
“It was never an issue with me. I never had any problems. I had nothing but pleasant experiences there," he said.
One particular pleasant experience McKie recalled also included the greater New River Valley community.
Following his first year at Virginia Tech, McKie took a full-time job, which supplied a salary and funds to continue his degree, as a mathematician at the DCSLOG Data Processing Center (DDPC) at the nearby Radford Army Ammunition Plant. A few years later, he bought a home in Westover Hills subdivision of Blacksburg and was set to move his family in when an emergency appendectomy derailed his plans.
“Seven white guys at my agency [DDPC co-workers] moved my wife and every stick of furniture while I was in the hospital," he said. “They were all in station wagons and pick-up trucks. My new neighbors said it looked like a caravan.”
McKie remained in Blacksburg working for DDPC for six years before moving to Maryland to accept a job offer as a civilian operations research analyst with the U.S. Department of Army specializing in war gaming issues. McKie went on to be promoted to division chief for two separate divisions and received two Analyst of the Year Awards.
“It was really tough for me to leave Blacksburg,” he said. “I only left because I was offered that job.”
He retired from federal service in 2004 after a 37-year career, which he still credits to him seeing that VPI flyer in 1966.
“It worked out darn well for me,” said McKie. “Virginia Tech was at the time, and is still, rated as one of the top statistics departments in the country. My study here played a significant role in my career.”
Upon retirement, he served as a visiting assistant professor in mathematics at the University of the District of Columbia from 2004 to 2009 and is currently an adjunct professor at the Bethesda, Maryland, branch of Central Texas College.
McKie is also a graduate of the U.S. Army College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He and his wife of 52 years years, Winafer, still live in North Potomac, Maryland. They are the parents of three adult children — Dwayne, Kimberly, and Allison.
— Written by Travis Williams