Thomas Nelson Conrad, 1882-86

Thomas Nelson Conrad
Thomas Nelson Conrad

As soon as he knew that the General Assembly had established a new college on the site of the old Preston and Olin Institute, Thomas Nelson Conrad, president of Preston and Olin in 1871 and an active participant in getting VAMC located in Blacksburg, wanted to head the new land-grant institution. He became a major contender for the position, only to see it go to Minor.

Unsuccessful in his first presidential bid in 1872, Conrad became editor of the weekly newspaper, The Montgomery Messenger, and proceeded to become a major critic of various actions taken by the VAMC Board of Visitors. Sectionalism, politics, incompetence, partisanship, and spending too much of the taxpayers’ money to conduct business were among the charges he leveled. Some of the blasts from his pen, which at times extended beyond the board itself, angered people who later moved into positions that allowed them to get revenge.

Conrad had a colorful past. The Fairfax Court House native had been a teacher and lay preacher, and during the Civil War he had been a Confederate chaplain, scout, and spy. One of the most controversial presidents in the school’s history, he operated the college with more latitude than any of his predecessors, and he enjoyed a harmonious faculty and board of visitors, something the presidents before him had lacked.

Under Conrad, VAMC began to offer an A.B. degree—today’s bachelor of arts—in the literary and scientific department and expanded the curriculum to offer degrees in civil engineering and mining engineering. Students in these programs pursued four years of study rather than the three years required of students studying agriculture and mechanics. The long winter vacation that began under Minor was replaced with the more traditional summer vacation, and VAMC moved from semesters to the quarter system. A new librarian spent a record allocation of $2,229.96 entirely on books of fiction and poetry, and a museum opened. For the first time ever, the school’s farm became financially successful. And the college’s military program was organized much like that of Virginia Military Institute. For a time, the school flourished.

But Conrad, whose ties to the Readjuster political party had swept him into office, actively supported that party in the campaign of 1883, raising the ire of the opposition party of Democrats, who proceeded to level a number of charges against him for involving the college in politics. Two years later, the Democrats not only increased their majorities in both houses, but also saw one of their own, Fitzhugh Lee, elected governor. One of Lee’s appointments—all Democrats—to fill vacancies on the VAMC Board of Visitors was W. H. F. Lee. Both Lees had felt the sting of Conrad’s pen at The Montgomery Messenger.

When the newly constituted board met in March 1886, it voted to remove all faculty and officers of VAMC on July 1, 1886. And it adopted a resolution prohibiting all officers of the college from engaging in politics beyond voting. The board then selected the school’s next president, who took office on Conrad’s last day as president.

When Conrad died 19 years later on January 5, 1905, he was interred in Montgomery County, with the corps of cadets providing full military honors. He was the only person to have served as president of both Preston and Olin Institute and Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College