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A Rearview Mirror Special Feature: Ángels and Preachers, Part I

I AM ANGRY AT THE BOARD OF REGENTS. But pleased for Dr. Cabrera.

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Presidents Marion L. Brittain and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just casual.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (

Last Wednesday was a rough day at work. After nearly 12 hours at the plant, I finally made it home and realized I had to write a history column. Knowing that the new Institute president was due to be announced officially soon, I was hoping it had happened that afternoon, because I’ve been waiting to write this compilation for a long, long time. Of course, it hadn’t, and they announced it like three hours after what I had been able to write was released, and so now this is conspicuously a week after the fact. Enjoy.

From the Rumble Seat and those of us here at Rearview Mirror (read: me) would like to formally welcome Ángel Cabrera as the 12th president of the Georgia Institute of Technology. So, in order to commemorate this approximately once-in-a-decade milestone, it was finally fitting to do an overview of all the past Georgia Tech presidents in one place. So, without further adieu, congrats to Dr. Cabrera, best of luck, and here’s the men who have stood at the helm of one of the country’s best public institutions.

The first edition of this three part series takes a look at the Institute’s first four presidents. These men, if not in it for life, saw Tech’s destiny unfurl over sustained periods of time when its most valuable asset was a single, sure-handed leader with a clear vision for the destiny of the school he ran. These four men - Isaac Hopkins, Lyman Hall, Kenneth Matheson, and Marion Brittain - were the men who laid the sturdy base the Tech we know today stands on. I argue that they, much like how people look at Tech football coaches, can be broken up into three major sections, and today we take a look at the halcyon years - when Tech was smaller, simpler, and still precariously balanced on the edge of existence.

Rev. Isaac S. Hopkins

Years in Office: 1888 - 1896

Georgia Tech’s first president was chosen before the school even opened its doors. Though he had ascended to the position of president of his alma mater, Emory College, across town just three years before, by 1888, the physicist-turned-preacher was leading the nascent school just over the northern city limits. Hopkins was chosen for this position for one reason in particular, that being his expertise in the field of technical education. Back in those days, Georgia Tech had just one major, mechanical engineering, that every student was required to take. There was hardly any bureaucracy to speak of for which Hopkins had to preside over, but that doesn’t mean his job was a simple task. Even once the immense legwork of getting the doors actually open - the resistance came from all sides in those days - was completed, and Tech had secured land, funding, though meager, and staff, the Old Shop Building almost immediately burned down. This isn’t even to mention the whole “there were no dorms, non-academic space, or dining halls” thing. Hopkins himself spelled out the best options to board for the year to incoming students, the few dozen there were. And though the preacher was a strict, rule-oriented leader, he was also a tireless servant of the Institute. Though he was a moralist that expected everyone to live up to his almost-martial rule over the campus, the Institute could very well have folded up shop right then and there. And who knows how his successors would have fared, including the tremendous success of the one who immediately followed him, without the groundwork this man laid. He retired after about nine years and dedicated the rest of his life to preaching in the Methodist church.

Captain Lyman Hall

Years in Office: 1896-1905

I fight the urge to say every president has been the most consequential president Georgia Tech has ever had. Different men established the school, integrated it, and introduced engineering education to women. Still others brought about the Olympics, graduate studies, and saved the school from literally burning to the ground and never being rebuilt. While Pettit, Van Leer, and Hall all died on the job, only one worked himself to death. That’s not to disparage Van Leer, of course, who we will touch on later, but for all his work in fundraising for a school that was still, despite Hopkins’ best efforts, criminally neglected by the state legislature, especially when compared to its sister school up the road in Athens, expanding the curriculum offerings with the groundwork for programs like textile, civil, chemical, and electrical engineering, and, you know, hiring a man called John Heisman to coach football and run the rest of the athletic department, the single public tribute to Hall on campus is a small, out of the way chemistry lab-turned-office building that is quite literally overshadowed by its much more famous neighbor, Bobby Dodd Stadium at Grant Field. It is fitting though, that this red brick structure was erected as a visual and operational complement to its neighbor, the Aaron French Textile Building, since Hall played no small part in getting the Pittsburgh industrialist-turned-philanthropist to donate the money and resources to open a textile engineering school on campus, paving the way for growth in programming depth that has really only accelerated as time marches on. Growth was the name for Hall, be it through programs, offerings, having dormitories - he thought they would reduce disciplinary infractions - on campus, or enrollment. He was the school’s first, and only, at the time, mathematics professor when he was hired, and eventually worked his way up to be its president. He was absolutely a hardliner, but a humble man who cared deeply about his school in every way, even if he let Frank Turner do the heaviest of lifting in securing the aforementioned Heisman. But, yeah, Captain Lyman Hall’s building is hardly even an afterthought, and you won’t find a statue of him anywhere on campus, but I think that’s a rather fitting marker for a man who likely would have been reviled by anything more than the most modest of tributes.

Kenneth G. Matheson

Years in Office: 1906-1922

Let me say this right here: if you have read between the lines yet, it should be clear by now - one does not have to be an engineer to make a good president of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Matheson got his start as a well-regarded English professor in a time when, true to its then-moniker, it was more a humble school of engineering than a true engineering institute. Some of this comes from its roots - it was modeled after Worcester, not MIT - and some needed to come from natural growth over time. Matheson, who took pages out of his predecessor’s notes by roping in a Pittsburgh philanthropist - Andrew Carnegie - to help build a much needed building - his rather expected pet project, a library - and by expanding course selection, the physical plant, and enrollment, ratcheted all the initiatives up a notch. When pushing for funding, he secured permanent endowments, when expanding class offerings, he strove for research and graduate studies, too. Matheson took a solid base and started to flesh out the details. When he left for Drexel, a much less political, and therefore much less stressful job, Georgia Tech was by no means the same school he left it. With William Alexander at the helm after Heisman left town, football had helped establish Georgia Tech as a nationally-relevant name. Though some sources will tell you it was Brittain that really made this happen, Matheson saw to it that the Tech education was rapidly moving from “hard, little-known toil in a narrow, trades-y field” to “hard toil in broader engineering and science principles” and the increase in prestige was not something that Tech would let go, once it had its hands on it, despite Matheson’s last passion project, the renaming of the Georgia School of Technology to the Institute we know today, remaining on the back burner for another quarter-century.

Dr. Marion L. Brittain

Years in Office: 1922-1944

A cursory glance at the map lends Marion Brittain a respect not given to any past faculty, staff, or administrator. Not one, but two places are named for Brittain. These being not just the beautiful collegiate gothic dining hall, with its airy stained glass and intricate stone and iron detailwork, or, in other circles, burritos, or, in still others, as the site of, in my opinion, one of Tech’s most under-appreciated traditions, but also the path known as Brittain Drive that doubles as the aorta of gameday six Saturdays in autumn, and is more colloquially known as Yellow Jacket Alley. He would find both fitting. As is the theme, he was able to build on his predecessors, expanding campus to new and previously underserved students, like the women of the Evening School, growing the Engineering Experiment Station, and standing up to the inequalities of the state government with resolve, despite being beaten back with abandon, losing the Commerce School, funding options, and even the school’s very independence with the absorption of the Tech Board of Trustees into the state Board of Regents. The dining hall named in his honor was designed in-house and most of its furnishings hand-built by students and staff, as befits a practical man with strong faith in the Georgia Tech education. It was Brittain who secured the grant that established the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics and Brittain who established the Reserve Officer Training Corps. When it was all said and done, after a tenure of fighting legislature that began before he even dreamed of leading the Institute, it was time to step down on his own terms. He still lived in the President’s House on North Avenue - Blake Van Leer being the first to live in the residence on Tenth Street - and still walked to work every day to his seat in the same office. Brittain was the only man to ever officially hold the title President Emeritus. Instead of administrative duties, he toiled for a few years on his book, The Story of Georgia Tech, a true labor of love from another Emory bachelor of arts graduate. He would continue to be Tech’s biggest, and perhaps most loyal football fan - one of the founding fathers of the Yellow Jacket, now Ramblin’ Reck, Club - and remains to this day Tech’s longest serving president.

These four men, all of whom started their tenure deeply ensconced either in local education or Tech professorship, served the Institute as one of its few, or in some cases, sole executive leader. Tech would not have functioned well without them, sure, but in many cases, it is solely due to last minute funding, influence, or both that Tech as we know it is able to exist today. And 1,900 words isn’t enough to do them justice. Tomorrow we move on to the middle age of Tech presidents.

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. 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.