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Rearview Mirror: Belligerents and Boilermakers

ROTC makes a full-throated return to a campus once again forced into multiple transitions at once.

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Speeches on Grant Field, featuring Blake Van Leer.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

As if Governor Eugene Talmadge’s power-hungry tactics weren’t enough, Georgia Tech, along with the rest of the United States, and indeed the world, were being plunged into global conflict. With the presidential role at Tech very much on the brink of turnover, while the campus was forced to adapt to attacks at home and the burdens of the massive conflict, it was a hectic time not only to be a Georgia Tech student, but to be one of its facilitating administrators.

Amusingly, Wallace describes the Second World War as “an event that more than any other was to shape the Georgia Tech of today,” (212) which was probably extremely true in 1963, but, more than fifty years later, that would certainly no longer be the case. With the outbreak of war, the entire country was lurched into supporting the burgeoning war effort. In order to do this, Tech, like its peers, was to teach year-round instead of in three quarters of the year, promote knowledge of civics and American identity, emphasize what we now call STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and mandate an exercise regimen. Tech had a massive head start in the third one, at least.

Wallace, interestingly, allows himself to editorialize on how “controversial” schools teaching in trimesters was, which is essentially the system we have now. Tech additionally opened up vocational and other courses, which would later become the groundwork for a school eventually known as Southern Polytechnic State University, though that itself is worthy of its own column. Tech immediately was faced with the double-edged sword of the military - the Army and Navy were rapidly expanding their roles on campus, yet there was a massive brain drain as legions of students became, well, legions of soldiers. The increased need for capable staff to run programs around the country led to a siphoning of Tech’s faculty as well, let alone the ones who were called to serve their country. The schools outside of Mechanical, Electrical, and Aerospace Engineering, as well as Physics and Chemistry, were hollow shells of their prewar states. The faculty, administration, and, critically, the already subpar equipment were worn to dust with the literally nonstop demand. However, just as the military proved a boon for investment in Tech’s physical plant and men, its vocational training, and prestige, it also opened doors for the nascent research program unheard of before the conflict.

Brittain is quick to note that Tech was well aware of the consequences of the wartime action plan, as Washington had informed Tech that, as one of the six schools with a preexisting Naval ROTC, that would be the focus of its programming. Less than eight months after the declaration of war, Tech’s Naval ROTC had quadrupled.

In those days, only a small portion of the student body was not in an ROTC unit, or in some other military program. A Tech economics professor, John Griffin, noted that Tech was set up for success because of it’s engineering roots, the established Army and Navy presences, its location relative to other military bases and war factories, and the highly-regarded faculty on hand to teach it. Additionally, he noted that at least eighty percent of alumni were known to be doing war work, with three thousand at least in active duty, four of which were admirals and seven generals, with a death toll of ninety six.

It’s noted before that a great strain was placed on faculty and administration, and nowhere was that more true than for the three men at the top of the hierarchy. All were aging, and one had even already submitted a past resignation, only for it to be rejected. President Brittain, as well as Deans Skiles and Perry, were complemented by a new officer, Vice President Cherry Emerson. It is notable not only that all four now have buildings named after them, but that Emerson’s father, was a dean as well, and also has a building named after him. Suffice it to say, they were important men doing important work.

That said, Brittain was still insistent on retiring. And, in 1944, he tendered yet another resignation. The same day that Brittain stepped down, Blake Van Leer, dean of engineering at North Carolina State and two-time graduate of Purdue University, became Tech’s fifth president, following in the steps of Isaac Hopkins, Lyman Hall, Kenneth Matheson, and Brittain before him. Van Leer was an educated man, equalling the doctors with his degrees from Purdue, California, Caen, Munich, and Washington and Jefferson, as well as a battle-tested one, matching rank with Hall having earned a Croix de Guerre as a captain in France during the Great War. The only predecessor he couldn’t match was Rev. Hopkins, a seminarian, but he was notably the first engineer to take the helm at the finest engineering school in the southeast.

Though the changeover was dramatic and ceremonial, perhaps the best testimony to the character of Marion Brittain was the event thrown in his honor by his faculty, going as far to conclude The Story of Georgia Tech with the words of Perry. Though the Dean’s words a beautiful, honorific, and an all-around worthy read, they are far too long to reprint here. That said, his closing statement, that, “In these words to Dr. Brittain, we, the members of the faculty, pay tribute to a modest, gracious, gallant gentleman, one who has ever shown himself an able executive, a wise leader, and a trusted friend,” (Brittain, 315). It is worth noting that Brittain goes into far more detail than I, or Wallace, ever could, about the days gone by at Tech, and in a much more heartfelt manner than McMath and his cowriters in Engineering the New South. Though Brittain’s history ended with his presidency, it is worth a read simply because the testimonies of the men who lived Tech’s history - think of Dodd’s Luck, George Griffin’s Griffin, You Are a Great Disappointment to Me, or Kim King’s Tales From the Georgia Tech Sideline - are so much more powerful and endearing to read.

Brittain served Tech for the remainder of his days, too, living in the same house on North Avenue that was his during his presidency. Brittain’s house no longer stands, and the president’s residence is now on the opposite side of campus, landing on Tenth Street as Tech grew north- and westward. He remains the only man to ever have held the position of president emeritus, and regularly held office hours in the now-demolished Knowles Building, formerly a dorm, even after completing his magnum opus, until his death in 1953.

I resisted the urge to pilfer Wallace’s contemporary newspaper accounts as I always do, but, having lived those in those days, he truly had access to the very best descriptions, and the Atlanta Journal editorial in honor of his retirement reads beautifully, “He said the first demand on every man was to make a living. But he realized even more fully the need for every man to make a life - and he dedicated himself to the education of the full man,” (Wallace, 222).

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, 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 look into adding it to the schedule, as the column is only planned out through this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.