Remembering: Former U.S. Sen. John W. Warner
John W. Warner was known nationwide as a long-term U.S. senator, a military expert, and the sixth husband of actress Elizabeth Taylor.
But at Virginia Tech, Warner, who died at age 94 on May 25, is remembered as a powerful advocate for university research funding and an inspiring figure for many students who have explored their interest in public service through the Hokies on the Hill program since 2010.
“I was fortunate to spend time with the senator and Jeanne Warner in 2019, and while he did not attend our university, it was clear that he loved Virginia Tech as much as any Hokie,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “His steadfast support and engagement over the years sustained important research and his life of service inspired us all. He will be missed. My sympathies go out to Jeanne, John’s three children, his grandchildren, and all who loved him.”
Tom Dingus is the Newport News Shipbuilding Professor and longtime head of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, widely known as VTTI, which had more than $46 million in research expenditures in fiscal 2019.
“He was always extraordinarily supportive,” Dingus said of Warner. “I think he liked supporting us because we were able to create jobs and do cutting-edge research and grow into a world-renowned institute. He was able to share the vision that we had and provided absolutely critical support to help us achieve those goals. It is safe to say we wouldn’t be where we are without John Warner’s help.”
Warner enlisted in the Navy at age 17 to serve in World War II and was commissioned in the Marines during the Korean War. With support from the GI Bill, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and retired in 2009 as the second-longest serving senator in Virginia history. Warner spent his entire Senate career as a member of the Committee on Armed Services, including over a dozen years as chairman or ranking member.
Warner’s support helped many important Virginia Tech research projects get off the ground. Along with VTTI, these include the Navy Collaborative Integrated Information Technology Initiative and the Advanced Wireless Integrated Navy Networks, both of which had principal investigators based on Virginia Tech and took place in the early-to-mid 2000s.
Emeritus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Warren Stutzman headed the Advanced Wireless Integrated Navy Networks project, which involved work in ultra-wide-band antennas, software defined radio, and secure communication networking.
“We pulled together several disciplines and it worked out well,” Stutzman said. “I thought it was a big boost for Virginia Tech and accelerated us into the technology research boom that was beginning right around that point in time.”
Stefan Duma is the Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering and director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences. He is renowned worldwide for developing a rating system for helmets. The roots of that project are in military related work that was championed by Warner.
“He was an adamant supporter of our research, in particular the work we did with the Department of Defense in terms of protecting soldiers,” Duma said. “This was during a time when war changed to more explosives, more eye injuries. We were investigating head, neck, and chest-injury prevention. He supported that project, which laid the foundation for a lot of the [sports] helmet research we do now.”
Eric Hallerman is a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. Since 2004, he has overseen the Horseshoe Crab Trawl Survey, which tracks populations of the crabs along the Atlantic Ocean shore from Wachapreague, Virginia, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and into the Delaware Bay. The project provides relative abundance data to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to help ensure that commercial fisheries practices do not erode sustainable populations of the crabs. Horseshoe crabs are one of the oldest known species on earth, and are the unique source of a compound known as limulus amebocyte lysate that is crucial for demonstrating the safety of a variety of medical compounds, including COVID-19 vaccines now in use.
“Without John Warner’s help, we would not have had that seed money to get started and show the value of this program,” said Hallerman, who recalled meeting with one of the senator’s staffers shortly after taking over the trawl survey program from former colleague Jim Berkson. “She asked me 20 questions about horseshoe crabs, and they were good questions. I was happy to answer them. I left there thinking, 'Wow.'”
Not long after retiring from the Senate, Warner began a tradition of meeting with Virginia Tech students participating in the annual Hokies on the Hill program overseen by Chris Yianilos ’94, who is now the university’s executive director of government relations. Yianilos interned with Warner while enrolled at Virginia Tech and later worked for the senator from 1999-2009, rising to become his deputy chief of staff.
“He spoke to my Hokies on the Hill students every year,” Yianilos said. “For a person who has a nuclear submarine named for him, he was the type of guy who recognized the inherent value of every person. Whether you were the president of the United States, a senate staffer, a cook in the restaurant he was dining at, an antique store owner, or a Virginia Tech student, he wanted to listen to what you had to say. He was genuinely interested in you and made you feel special, which was part of his charm. Everybody’s opinion mattered to him. He also loved interacting with students and teaching life lessons through storytelling. Every year he looked forward to the ‘Annual Warner Lecture,’ as he would call it. Future students will get the same stories, but sadly for the students, those stories will come from me retelling them rather than directly from John Warner."
Warner had an understated manner of referring to his many accomplishments and experiences while engaging people he continued to meet in his later years as he continued to find ways to serve others even after leaving elected office.
That characteristic made a memorable impression on many Virginia Tech students who met Warner through the Hokies on the Hill program, including Robert Grey ’17, who double majored in political science and public relations and today works in business services for a contractor that builds digital services for the federal government.
“To this day, I still share my vivid memories from that 2016 meeting with others, whether it was the senator’s invaluable advice about reaching across the aisle and the merits of bipartisan cooperation, his thoughts on certain policy measures, or his tales of, in his words, 'this actress I was once married to' and how he read her lines to her before she went to bed,” Grey said. “That meeting, and all the wisdom and living history the senator imparted to us as students, is still fresh in my mind. He was truly an American treasure.”