Mitchell Hall namesakes build on a long-standing tradition of giving
A man who grew up in a home without running water or electricity is a namesake of what will be the largest building on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus — Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Hall.
While Norris Mitchell may not have had modern amenities in his home growing up, he never lacked for ambition. His mother had attended college before becoming a schoolteacher. Along with raising Mitchell, she taught him in a one-room schoolhouse early in his life and constantly stressed the importance of education.
“Growing up, it was always a question of where I would go to college, not if,” Mitchell has said. “Same with my brother and two sisters.”
His college journey began at what is now the University of Lynchburg, which he attended for one year with help from a scholarship, before transferring to Virginia Tech after securing a co-operative education appointment with the U.S. Navy.
As a co-op student, Mitchell took classes in Blacksburg during the fall and spring, and worked collecting data on flight tests for the Navy during the winter and summer.
Mitchell’s work experience sparked an interest in missiles and rockets, which would be the focus of much of his career. Mitchell earned his aerospace engineering degree in 1958, mere months after the launch of Sputnik 1, and entered a job market where U.S. demand for aerospace expertise was surging as the nation sought to catch up with the Soviet Union in the space race.
Mitchell spent the first two years of his career in Long Beach, California, working for what was then known as Douglas Aircraft, which later became McDonnell Douglas and ultimately merged with Boeing.
While working for Douglas Aircraft, he was transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina, to perform classified work. He progressed to become chief of the company’s aerodynamics program, before transferring to the company’s Washington, D.C., office. He eventually left Douglas Aircraft to work in weapon analysis systems for the Research Analysis Corporation, before performing similar work for Science Applications International Corporation, widely known as SAIC.
Mitchell got involved in real estate starting in 1968 by jointly buying an apartment building with friends. Over the next several years, he became increasingly involved in real estate. He left the aerospace industry entirely in 1974 to focus on real estate, starting a company called MG Apartments.
Over the years, Mitchell went on to broaden his entrepreneurial activities. He and several other Virginia business leaders founded Virginia Commerce Bank, a commercial lender that grew to dozens of locations before merging with United Bank. Mitchell also turned his eyes back to the region where he grew up. Along with a partner, he purchased and upgraded the Olde Mill Golf Resort in Carroll County.
For many years, Mitchell has also turned his eyes back to his alma mater. Along with his wife, Wendy Mitchell, he is a member of the university’s Ut Prosim Society of extraordinarily generous donors. He endowed the Mitchell Professor of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering position, now held by Rakesh Kapania, along with a scholarship in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. A robotics lab in the College of Engineering’s Goodwin Hall is also named for the Mitchells in recognition of their philanthropy.
More recently, the Mitchells committed $35 million in what is the largest single gift ever made by an alumnus. The gift will go toward a long-awaited project to replace Randolph Hall with a 284,000-square-foot showcase building for the engineering college, and will also provide support for programs and activities housed within the building. Per approval by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, the new building will be known as Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Hall.
Eric Paterson, the Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor of Marine Propulsion, still recalls a meeting he had with Mitchell and other notable graduates from the Class of 1958 that took place in 2012, right after Paterson became head of the Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
“They wanted to welcome me to the department and stress the importance of our programs and impact,” Paterson said. “That meeting left an impression on me, and it’s a reminder that Norris has been a long-time advocate for the department and university. … Norris has invested in engineering faculty, students, and programs in a number of impactful ways. His support of our faculty through an endowed professorship helps us retain world-class talent, and the robotics lab in Goodwin Hall ensures that out students can engage with hands-on work at different levels. He realizes that what we do is a team effort – and that alumni are a part of that.”
The Mitchells live in Great Falls, Virginia, and regularly visit Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. During a 2019 visit they met with multiple students from the Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, including Kevin D’Souza ’19, ’20, who now works for Northrop Grumman.
“It was very inspiring and and encouraging that so many years later Norris and Wendy still care so much about the university and the program,” D’Souza said. “I remember coming out of that meeting hoping to be where they are one day and feeling eager to give back to the department later on in my career. I maybe wouldn’t have had that inspiration as much if I had not had the opportunity to meet them.”
Wendy Mitchell said the meeting made a strong impression on her and her husband as well, helping to cement their decision to give toward the project to replace Randolph Hall.
“We enjoy meeting with students and listening to all their great ideas,” she said. “They’re so enthusiastic and can’t wait to tell you what they are working on and their ideas for the future. It’s like getting an injection of energy.”
Wendy Mitchell enrolled at Virginia Tech but left to address a family emergency during her first year. She went on to a distinguished career in banking, starting as a teller but winding up as a senior executive, having taken numerous night classes and earning multiple credentials and certifications. Today, she and her husband stay busy managing investment properties they still hold. Norris Mitchell also serves on the board of directors of Meridian Energy Group, a company that is trying to establish a more environmentally friendly oil refinery in North Dakota.
“I tell him we need to retire and he says that word is not in his vocabulary,” Wendy Mitchell joked about her husband.
Norris Mitchell said he never viewed growing up in a home without many modern amenities to be a disadvantage.
“When you live in the country and don’t have electricity or water or so forth in the house, you become very self-sufficient,” he said. “You learn how to do a lot of things that other people don’t know how to do.”
That same mindset served him well as a student, as an engineer, and as an investor, Mitchell said. And while he may only have worked as an engineer for the first 16 years of his career, he said he has continued to draw on skills from that field throughout his life.
“Engineering teaches you to think,” he said. “It teaches you how to determine what’s important and what’s not important, how to determine what makes sense and what doesn’t. That, to me is engineering, and it can be broken down and applied in a lot of fields.”
Thanks to the Mitchells, future generations of Virginia Tech engineering students will be able to hone such valuable skills in a cutting edge building that will serve thousands of people each day.
Article Item$35 million gift fuels long-awaited project to replace Virginia Tech’s Randolph Hall , article
The largest ever gift by a Virginia Tech alumnus will advance a long-awaited project to replace an aging engineering building with what will be the largest building on the university’s Blacksburg campus.