In Memoriam: William E. Lavery, former president of Virginia Tech
William Edward Lavery, the 12th president of Virginia Tech and a Blacksburg resident since 1966, died on Monday, Feb. 16. He was 78.
“Bill guided Virginia Tech as it transitioned and matured as a research university. I had the pleasure of serving as professor and dean during his time of leadership, which I recall as dynamic and exciting,” said Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger.
Lavery brought stability to the university following the years of explosive growth under President T. Marshall Hahn Jr. But, he ushered in rapid growth in other areas, complementing Hahn’s successes. He emphasized research, and expenditures in support of research totaled more than $70.2 million by fiscal year 1987, moving the university into the top 50 research institutions in the nation.
He enhanced research opportunities by initiating the Corporate Research Center (CRC) and Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties (VTIP). During his 12-year term, the first two buildings were begun at the center and two more were planned.
Under him the university made giant technological leaps. The CRC received an antenna to link Virginia Tech to the world via satellite, and the Extension division developed a series of 26 downlink sites throughout the state. Installation began on a new communication system for the campus, the university purchased a supercomputer, and the first proposal was developed for what later became the Blacksburg Electronic Village.
Lavery also placed a high priority on alleviating shortages of classroom, laboratory, and office space, and during his term the total inventory of available space increased by 50.1 percent. A $108 million construction program during his presidency included additions to Newman Library and the War Memorial Gymnasium and construction of Johnston Student Center. Another $17.5 million funded a complex to house the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, which was established during his presidency and opened to students in 1980.
Under his watch, the university introduced a core curriculum and added degree programs. The number of minority scholarships and fellowships grew, and students applied in record numbers. Faculty salaries moved from the bottom third to the top fourth among research universities.
Lavery hired the university’s first vice president for development, Charles Forbes, who launched a campaign to raise $50 million — then raised more than $118 million. Large contributions during his presidency included gifts from John Lee Pratt of $11 million to support engineering and agricultural programs and Marion Bradley Via of $3 million to establish the Harvey W. Peters Research Center and $5 million each to support the departments of civil engineering and electrical engineering. Additionally, Robert B. Pamplin Sr. and Robert Pamplin Jr. gave $10 million to support the College of Business. Assets of the Virginia Tech Foundation grew from $6.2 million to $140.1 million during his term.
Lavery also hired the university’s first woman vice president, Sandra Sullivan, vice president for student affairs.
“Bill was a fine person … very caring and compassionate. He was the consummate ‘people person’ interested in others,” said Minnis Ridenour, who served as executive vice president under Lavery.
“Bill Lavery was passionate about Virginia Tech from the very first day he arrived in the late 60s, and always promoted [Virginia] Tech to every constituency he could. He loved invitations to join our alumni reunion groups even in his retirement, and did so often,” said Tom Tillar, vice president for alumni affairs.
Lavery joined the faculty at Virginia Tech in 1966 as director of administration for the Extension division before being tapped as vice president for finance in 1968. In 1973, he became executive vice president, and he was appointed president in 1974, effective Jan. 1, 1975.
Born in Geneseo, N.Y., Lavery earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, his master’s in public administration from George Washington University, and his doctorate in extension administration from the University of Wisconsin.
He began his professional career as a teacher and coach at Clarence Central High School in Clarence, N.Y., before serving two years in the Army. He began working for the federal Extension Service’s Division of Management Operations in 1956, where he remained until 1966.
Lavery married the former Peggy Johnson of Pawnee City, Neb., in 1956, and the couple had four children.
During his presidency, he received numerous honors and awards. Among them, the National Conference of Christians and Jews presented him with the Brotherhood Award, the governor of Virginia appointed him to serve on the Commission on Virginia’s Transportation in the 21st Century, United States President Ronald Reagan named him chair of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, and the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury appointed him to the National Savings Bond Committee, where he chaired the Higher Education Industry Campaign. In 1985, Xavier University in the Philippines presented him with an honorary doctorate.
After stepping down Dec. 31, 1987, he continued to serve the university, first as honorary chancellor, then as the William B. Preston Professor of International Affairs. After his retirement on Aug. 1, 1991, he was named president emeritus. The university recognized his contributions by presenting him with the Ruffner Medal in 1993 and by dedicating the William E. Lavery Animal Health Research Center in his honor in 1995, the same year he was named an honorary alumnus of Virginia Tech. Additionally, the Class of 1997 named its class ring in his honor.
Visitation at McCoy Funeral Home, Blacksburg, will be Thursday, Feb. 19 5–7:30 p.m. followed by a Rosary Service at 7:30 p.m. His life will be celebrated at a Funeral Mass, on Friday, Feb. 20, 11 a.m. at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Old Mill Road, Blacksburg. The family suggests that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the William E. Lavery Professorship at Virginia Tech, 902 Prices Fork Rd., Blacksburg, 24061 or to the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Building Fund.