John McLaren McBryde, 1891-1907

John McLaren McBryde
John McLaren McBryde

IIn recommending John McLaren McBryde for the presidency of VAMC, Charles W. Dabney, president of the University of Tennessee, told the rector of the board of visitors, “I believe he would make your agricultural and mechanical college a success at last.” Exactly one month after Lomax’s forced resignation from the position, the board unanimously appointed McBryde, a native South Carolinian and graduate of the University of Virginia, to fill it.

McBryde had engaged in farming, had helped organize and promote farmers’ clubs, had served as trustee for a fund used to help establish an agriculture school at the University of Virginia, and had been a professor of agriculture and botany at the University of Tennessee, which later tried unsuccessfully to make him its president. During his term as president of VAMC, Sweet Briar College and the University of Virginia both offered him, without success, the presidency of their schools.

McBryde assumed his new duties as president of VAMC, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, and professor of agricultural chemistry on July 1, 1891, and immediately began reorganizing the curriculum as requested by the board. His full report on his plan, which bore a resemblance to that prepared by William H. Ruffner when the college first opened, became the foundation of modern-day Virginia Tech. In it, he proposed that the land-grant school become more professional and technical and called for seven four-year courses that would lead to bachelor of science degrees and two shorter courses that would lead to certificates, all falling under either agriculture or mechanics, which later in his administration was called engineering. The plan’s adoption marked the first time the board had acquiesced to a president’s reorganization plan, and the plan itself drew support throughout the commonwealth.

With agriculture, mechanics, and scientific technology combined in one institution, the legislature changed the school’s name in 1896 to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, which was shortened in popular usage to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, then to VPI. The new name prompted a competition for a new college yell, and the winning yell prompted a new nickname for the students: the Hokies. New colors—Chicago maroon and burnt orange—followed, replacing black and gray.

As president, McBryde encouraged the formation and growth of student activities and oversaw the initiation of an athletic program; the creation of a playing field for athletics and military drills; the birth of The Virginia Tech, an official organ of the Athletic Association that later became the official student newspaper; the planting of more than 2,000 ornamental trees; the creation of an infirmary; the installation of a new water system, whose water tank stood as a challenge to the venturesome “rats” in the corps; the adoption of the motto Ut Prosim; and the first use of the current university seal. He added graduate programs; divided the college into departments, each with its own faculty and dean; and hired a career military officer as commandant. He successfully pushed for appropriations to hire additional faculty, to erect dormitories and faculty homes—known as Faculty Row—on campus, as student enrollment increased from 50 in 1891 to 727 in 1903, and to add other buildings: 67 were constructed during his term and six were renovated. He was the first president to live in The Grove, erected in 1902.

Late in his presidency, a series of incidents upset him greatly, affecting his health. Rather than let him resign, which he wanted to do, the board of visitors granted him a six-month leave of absence and named professors E. A. Smyth and T. P. Campbell to serve jointly as president on campus, while J. Thompson Brown, rector of the board, was designated the official head of the school.

Within a month after returning to campus, McBryde realized that his health would not allow him to continue as president. He submitted his resignation in October 1906, to become effective at the end of the session. But overwhelming support for him from throughout Virginia convinced him to remain until September the following year. Before he left, the board conferred an honorary Doctor of Science degree upon him and elected him president emeritus, the first such honors given by the college. After he retired, he became known as the father of VPI.