Three generations of impact and counting
The Blankenship family legacy at Virginia Tech spans almost 70 years – and continues to grow through service, teaching, and support for the new Holden Hall.
As the father of a newly minted Hokie engineer, Charles “Chip” Blankenship Jr. shares a sense of excitement about his son’s May 2021 graduation that many Virginia Tech families likely experience.
“We’re really proud of William,” said Blankenship. “It’s truly a big accomplishment for anyone to graduate from the College of Engineering.”
But this recent milestone carries special significance for the Blankenship family, as it marks three generations of alumni from the university’s materials science and engineering (MSE) program. William’s graduation means that now a grandfather, father, and son – Charlie Blankenship, ’60, ’62; Chip Blankenship, ’88; and William Blankenship, ’21 – not only share a unique Hokie identity, but also deep-rooted connections to a department and college that have laid the foundation for a lifetime of service and professional distinction.
Chip Blankenship and his father Charlie enjoyed long and fulfilling careers following their MSE degrees at Virginia Tech. Chip recently retired from a 25-year career with General Electric that included leadership positions in the company’s Aviation, Energy, and Appliances divisions, while his father Charlie spent 35 years with NASA in leadership positions for the organization’s technology programs. Both have been inducted into the College of Engineering’s Academy of Engineering Excellence, and Chip is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering. They both credit the training and opportunities they received through the MSE program as notable factors in their success.
But despite these accomplishments, William’s choice of major wasn’t a forgone conclusion, his father said.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t have undue influence,” said Blankenship of the family’s legacy. “We insisted that William explore other universities and majors, even within the field of engineering. We knew he had always been interested in engineering – growing up, he was never finished asking questions – but it needed to be his choice.”
Some aspects of the Hokie experience haven’t changed much since Blankenship himself was a student in the 1980s, he said. Strong friend groups that stay with you through all of your undergraduate years and beyond, making a large campus feel small. The thrill and anticipation of home football games. Walking through a quiet Prairie Quad on your way to and from the residence halls. And as an engineering student, the importance of participating in a co-op program and learning to appreciate the complementary nature of classroom learning and hands-on application in industry and government labs, as demonstrated by practicing engineers.
These experiences, lessons, and memories resonate with both Blankenship and his son William, who recently started his career as a materials engineer for Framatome. But other aspects of campus life have changed – and continue to evolve – as the College of Engineering grows and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering anticipates its return to a new but familiar home in Holden Hall. Holden is currently undergoing an extensive renovation and expansion and will also house the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering upon its completion in 2022 – just in time to help Virginia Tech celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary.
Blankenship has had a unique vantage point to these developments over the years, not only as an alumnus and parent, but also in recruiting Hokie engineers through his role as GE’s liaison to Virginia Tech and through his long history of service at the university.
For more than 10 years, Blankenship served on the MSE advisory board and worked with fellow board members and then-department head David Clark to progress several notable initiatives that helped differentiate the department from its peers. These activities included the establishment of the Kroehling Advanced Materials Foundry in 2011, a world-class research and teaching foundry available for student and faculty use, and the Nanoscale Fabrication and Characterization Laboratory in 2007, hosted by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
“Chip’s influence and leadership on the MSE advisory board helped pave the way for some of the department’s most notable accomplishments in recent memory,” said Clark, who retired from the university this fall. “His perspective as an industry leader, combined with his personal experience in the department, gave him a strong understanding of our students, curriculum, and priorities. We’re proud of the support he has given – and continues to give – to our programs.”
Blankenship stepped down from the MSE advisory board in 2019 when he began a new stint as a guest lecturer for the department’s professional development course (a course that his son William took when Blankenship was an instructor). He continues to share his expertise with Virginia Tech students as a visiting professor of practice in the Calhoun Honors Discovery Program in the Honors College and also teaches at the University of Virginia, where he received his doctorate.
Beginning in 2020, Blankenship assumed another important service role, this time as a member of the college’s advisory board. Although he had served in a similar capacity under previous deans, Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering, asked him to return for a new term.
Blankenship sees the college at a notable inflection point and credits the leadership of Ross and others at the university for a bold vision of the college’s future that extends beyond Blacksburg. “The Innovation Campus, for example, represents a unique opportunity for growth and impact, and the D.C. region is an incredible place for us to lead while serving the needs of commonwealth,” he said.
As someone with his own extensive track record of effective leadership in a large organization, Blankenship also admires Ross’s emphasis on strengthening and supporting people in the college community, one of the strategic priorities outlined in the college’s strategic plan.
Blankenship hopes the new Holden Hall will enable that strong sense of community for the next generation of Hokie engineers. The facility’s collaborative spaces, modern classrooms, and state-of-the-art labs are undoubtedly exciting, but finally bringing MSE students and faculty back together in one building is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the project, he said.
He’s hoping for a camaraderie and sense of place that reminds him of his own hours hanging out in Holden as a student, plodding his way through homework and chatting with his classmates, but on a larger, more contemporary scale. To help realize that vision, the Blankenship family foundation, A Concrete Christian Foundation, has committed $250,000 to name two MSE labs in support of the Holden Hall project.
“Supporting the Holden renovation is a once-in-a-generation kind of opportunity for our family,” said Blankenship. “Helping to create this single place of community for future MSE students to enjoy means a lot to us. We couldn’t pass it up.”