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Rearview Mirror: A Layman President

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Growth came in spurts under the military eye of Tech’s second president.

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Lyman Hall, most decidedly not a preacher. Or a physician.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georiga Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3742).

With just a handful of students and professors, no sports or extracurriculars, and just one major, there really was only one truly important position on campus back in the 1890s. With the retirement of Dr. Isaac Hopkins, that position was now vacant. Since it seemed every adult on campus, from head of Mechanical Engineering John Saylor Coon all the way down to shop supervisor John “Uncle Heinie” Henika, was a colorful personality, the question of who would replace him became more of a question of which one bubbled up to the top at the right time.


The word interim seems not to have existed back in the 1890s. Whereas today the Institute would flounder without someone with the appearance of power at the helm of, frankly, any part of the ever-growing administrative ranks, in 1896, the situation was a little more fluid. Whether it was the departure of former Athletic Director Mike Bobinski in 2016, or last year’s vacant chair of the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, the school always names someone, at least, to keep the lights on and the ship above the water line. When Dr. Isaac Hopkins left his office for the last time on January 1st, 1896, he simply turned off the lights, closed the door, and walked home.

For two full days, Tech was without both a president and a chairman of the faculty. One might say that fate or common sense led the Board of Trustees to choose a Tech professor to fill the power vacuum, but the reality of their precarious financial situation forced their hand in a way. Regardless of whether or not they had the time, wherewithal, or connections to make an outside hire for either lofty position, they really couldn’t afford to be beating salaries for prominent hires from other schools. They simply had to make do with what they had. Their search led them downstairs from the president’s office to knock on the door of the head of the mathematics department, Lyman Hall. By June, they had also made the military mathematician the Institute’s second president. Seriously, they made the whole alliteration thing too easy.

Hall was an Army man, through and through. The West Point graduate was also, “the man who established Georgia Tech’s reputation for discipline...[was] an iron-willed, highly articulate disciplinarian of the type now referred to as hard-nosed,” (Dress Her in White and Gold, pg. 29). Notably, the student body referred to their new leader as Captain Hall rather than President Hall. Where Hopkins was a fierce moral absolutist, with all the trappings of a fire-bellied Southern Methodist preacher, Hall demanded strict behavior, his will tempered by the blazing forges of the armed forces. Simply put, his “orders” were to be followed to a T, or face dire straits.

The Insubordinate Seniors of 1901, predictably, were dealt with swiftly and severely, in one of the most infamous disciplinary conflicts in school history. The eighteen young men, who had decided they would spend New Years Day, which is in the present day a national holiday, with their families. That the day fell on a Tuesday, and thus was not the first day of a full five-day school week made the plot seem even more innocuous. Hall was not amused, suspended the class, and demanded they return in the fall quarter to compensate for the time lost in order to graduate with their degrees. Hall may have been somewhat of an improvement in the general quality of life for the students, but only so long as they stayed within his stringent disciplinary bounds. Even the interference of the families of the boys and the State Legislature couldn’t stop Hall’s hard line tactics in the most famous example of his stubborn, unflinching dedication to his rules, lesser offenders be warned.

Tech’s most infamous bunch of rule-breakers earned themselves a victory lap in the fall of 1901.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/4641)

Hall’s rules of course carried over into the Tech dorms, run like military barracks complete with a deluge of rules governing when students woke and slept, their possession of things from the most innocuous substances all the way to alcohol and firearms, when and how they could leave campus, and when they could attend church and other gatherings. This would be understandably harsh, but, in reality, was a massive improvement over Hopkins. Hopkins enforced a lot of these things in practice, except for some of the scheduling. So how was it such a massive improvement? If you’ll remember, Tech up until 1897 had no dormitories. Students were essentially shrugged off and told to find room and board somewhere close to campus and hope for the best. Lyman Hall may have been harsh, but the man saw to it that, even on the most restrictive funding the school has received and will ever receive, the school grew like a weed.

The Knowles Dormitory, viewed from the east, from present Bobby Dodd Stadium Upper East Stands (approximately).
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/5832)

Less than six months after Hall assumed the role of president, he had already acquired two temporary dorms, as well as creating Tech’s second and third departments, electrical and civil engineering. The temporary dorms didn’t last long, because Hall and the Board of Trustees also managed funding for Tech’s first permanent residential building, to boot. The Knowles Dormitory, named after the local representative who was crucial to getting the bill passed, after some supplementation from donors. Knowles Dormitory stood for 95 years, at the crest of a hill overlooking a low, flat creek bed to the east of Tech Tower. A familiar location to most, Knowles was torn down in 1992 to allow construction of the modern Bill Moore Student Success Center. Still not ringing a bell? This structure was integrated into the West Stands of Bobby Dodd Stadium, serving as the press box and suite level on gameday, while allowing multi-functional use by admissions, organizations, and gala space the rest of the year, one of the first of its type. The relentless march of history stops for no one, let alone the Knowles building.

Despite this mini-building spree, and seemingly good luck, the master-fundraiser Hall was left without a home for either of his new departments. In the meantime, with just the Academic Building, today’s Tech Tower, the Second Old Shop Building, Knowles Dormitory, and a smattering of temporary structures, Hall was tasked with finding space for two new departments in school that was so starved for space and resources that it lacked a library, an infirmary, and study space. Of course, at the time, Tech was still closer to a trade school than the Institute we know today, but that, as well as more space, would come with phase two of Hall’s building program. The ever-eloquent president, though stringent and shoe-string, had indeed secured funding for two new school, broadening Tech’s academic reach as well as expanding its student body, which was crucial to bring in some revenue through “special fees,” though Tech could still not charge tuition. The state, helpful as ever, had not provided any continuing financial support for the curricular expansion besides a one time lump-sum payment to get the doors open, figuratively, of course, since there was not yet new doors to open. The supplies and equipment necessary to run new departments was donated from companies, thanks to the fast-talking ways of Hall, or funded by friends of Tech from across the state of Georgia, as well as some starting to crop up in neighboring states. Georgia Tech was in a rough place when Hall became president, as it so often found itself in early years. Finances were tough. Keeping the lights on and quality faculty employed was tougher. Lyman Hall hit the ground running in his first year, overseeing the first phase of Tech’s first expansion. All his hard work, however, wasn’t enough. There was more to be done.

And Captain Lyman Hall was just getting started.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Cracking the Solid South, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.


If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to delve into it when I am back in Atlanta, as my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta. I am open to all ideas!