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

The mini-series rolls along with a look into Tech’s second epoch - the back half of the twentieth century.

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Oh, hey, another picture of two presidents. This time it’s Pettit and Jimmy Carter.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography collection (

Because there’s more in these blurbs than any one column can hold, it was more fitting to split up the series into manageable chunks. Welcome to day two of Rearview Mirror’s presidential special, Ángels and Preachers.

I really resisted naming the second age of the Tech history with an Exodus wandering-in-the-desert-aimlessly type of name, because, while it’s sort of on track, it’s not really that accurate. Tech had a path. But, after Van Leer, the leaders were definitely of a different mentality, style, and background as their predecessors. I suppose we can settle for just calling this the “Purdue age,” since most of these fellows were Purdue men, but, rather calling them capricious times and leaving it at that is probably for the best.

Colonel Blake R. Van Leer

Years in Office: 1945-1956

The first engineer to ascend to the highest post at Georgia Tech, Col. Blake Van Leer came to Tech by way of the Dean of Engineering post at North Carolina State. He would be the last Tech president born in the 19th century. But he would be the one to see Tech admit women and the most prominent voice in Tech’s fight to play in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, despite his failing rapidly failing health, and the now eight decade old tug-of-war against the state government that would stop at nothing to throw roadblocks in the way of stubborn types like Hall, Brittain, and Van Leer. Having a strong moral backbone in an unjust fight, more than anything, would prove to be the trait most crucial to the success of a Georgia Tech president. Much like the passing of Brittain three years prior, the entire campus once again ground to a halt following his sudden passing of a heart attack in January of 1956. Though the role he played in establishing Georgia Tech and its home city as the first research powerhouse in the region - not immediately on par with Stanford, Berkeley, or MIT, of course, but setting it well on its path to getting there - as well as laying the groundwork for swallowing half of Home Park west of Hemphill to turn into what is now the west half of campus should not be ignored, his steadfast pursuit of opening the Georgia Tech education to any and all who seek it, first with co-education, and stirring the waters that would lead to eventual integration, remain his most significant contributions to Tech as we know it today.

Dr. Edwin D. Harrison

Years in Office: 1957-1969

It cannot be understated the extent that this man was loved by the campus. The man who guided Tech to becoming the first school in the South to be peacefully integrated was likely not the first candidate for the Tech job. It was not an appealing position then, with whoever succeeding Van Leer likely having the aforementioned debate immediately becoming their primary concern as president. Throw in faculty unrest over salary inequality and a looming need for hard-to-fund physical growth, and Harrison was walking into a veritable minefield. When yet another racist state law demanded the barring of funds to “any white institution that admitted a black student,” the student body gathered in the Heisman Gym to overwhelmingly voted to integrate. Three years and one violent integration in Athens later, media were barred from campus as three young men became the first non-whites on the Flats. Harrison was met with klansmen on Tenth Street, but Mayor William Hartsfield described Tech students as “too busy to hate,” as they just went on with their days as normal. Harrison’s administrative reorganization would begin to eat away at him, with players like James Boyd, director of the Engineering Experiment Station, and others vying for influence, and his unwillingness to kowtow to the Board of Regents eventually led to him retiring under the guise of a decade being long enough for anyone to lead a school. To mark his retirement, the “Magnificent Seven” stole _ech _ower’s east-facing neon T for the first time, presenting it to him as a gift at his retirement ceremony via helicopter. It was what every good Tech man deserves, they said.

Arthur G. Hansen

Years in Office: 1969-1971

Tech’s third Purdue man in a row sure didn’t last very long. Next to no sources list him doing much of anything, and I can almost unequivocally say that he is the least remarkable president the Institute has ever had. His extremely controversial term, namely his reorganization plan, would force his interim successor, James Boyd, who was somewhat controversial himself, to grapple with things like the Engineering Experiment Station and the mediocrity of Bud Carson. After what accomplishing solely the presidential equivalent of dropping Mentos into Diet Coke, Hansen fled the Flats as soon as he could when his Alma Mater came calling. Truly, his Bobinski-esque actions proved that, in at least one regard, he was ahead of his times.

Joseph M. Pettit

Years in Office: 1972-1986

After the death of Van Leer, it is plausible to argue that Tech spent years wandering in the wilderness without a true driving force. Though Harrison was beloved, campus growth continued in a patchwork fashion and several attempts at major reorganizations left deep wounds and distrust amongst leadership. Research had been wrapped around the coattails of NASA and the Department of Defense for so long that breadth, especially commitment to projects benefiting the state of Georgia, were all but nonexistent. It is Pettit that rekindled the sense of Georgia Tech at the beginning - developmental, entrepreneurial spirit. Tech was built as the shining beacon on the hill of the New South movement, yet had faded to a glimmer, a red brick ivory tower as closed off from places like Home Park and Midtown as the solid brick walls of the new library were from the sun. Pettit’s background in the cradle of Silicon Valley culture, an outpost called Stanford, led him to throw open the doors to its home state, and attempt to build in Atlanta what he saw not only in San Francisco, but the stick-to-it-ive-ness of Hall and Hopkins’ days. He was a legendary fundraiser, and he saw through the initiatives he started. Pettit anchored Tech sports by overseeing the return of conference play when the Yellow Jackets joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. The state legislature was a willing partner on Tech’s many new and diverse initiatives, and the only major projects Pettit was unable to see through were the ones in progress when he passed due to cancer in 1986. That, however, does not mean that his excellent dreams died with him.

Tech was led out into the wilderness of institutional aimlessness just as football was setting off on its grand experiment to become the “Notre Dame of the South.” We know how well that turned out. And without a visionary people viewed as everything ranging from iconoclastic to traditionalist - Blake Van Leer charted his own path pulling from both sides - at the helm, paralleling the loss of Bobby Dodd in football, the school was more of a Department of Defense shill than a proud institution of the state. And it took an equally skilled administration and president to bring it back. And the Scion of the Southland was once again at the forefront of another rebirth of the great city of Atlanta.

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.