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Rearview Mirror: Paul the Presidential Placeholder

Paul Weber’s term slid seamlessly into the beginning of the next president, Edwin Harrison.

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The Webers and the Harrisons.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

With his four month expectations now blown far out of the water, Paul Weber was more than ready to wind down his tenure as the Institute president and return to his administrator job. By now, though, the search was well underway for his eventual successor, who would wind up on the Flats before the end of 1958.

Though Paul Weber committed to no major administrative or structural changes in his tenure, that didn’t preclude the physical shape of campus from transforming rapidly in the face of the aftereffects of the Van Leer planning boom. Among four completed buildings was the Alexander Memorial Physical Training Center, or, as we know it today an iteration later, the bones of McCamish Pavilion. Other renovations in progress yielded a campus rapidly transforming into the nuclear age style prevalent in the center third of campus today. The Institute had been leasing a part of the Techwood Homes housing complex since it was built as part of a project of the New Deal, and finally purchased the building that resided on part of the land now occupied by the North Avenue Apartments.

Wallace is quick to lend much time and space to the foremost of the buildings pushed into the planning phase in Weber’s time, this being the future home of Tech’s nuclear program. Frank Neely, whom the reactor building would eventually be named for, spearheaded the state’s Nuclear Advisory Commission, who gifted Tech partial funding for the Radioisotope and Bioengineering Laboratory. Though bioengineering isn’t biomedical engineering, it is intriguing to think the roots of one of Tech’s newest engineering degrees lies in the bones of the Nuclear Engineering program. On campus, the program and the facilities have James Boyd, of the Engineering Experiment Station, to thank. Of course, the nuclear reactor would go on to have a storied history of its own before its eventual demise, but that is a story for another time.

Tech often lacks the most basic of facilities, and, like I mentioned a few weeks ago, the classroom building was still unbuilt and Tech’s general education space was bursting at the seams. Though the nuclear reactor and other facilities were fascinating, they were less pressing of a need than plain instructional space. This common theme, the lack of instructional space, would rear its head a few decades later, though that would be solved with the construction of a center for it, an instructional center, you might say. Wallace notes that it had been Tech’s top priority for about a dozen years before it was finally built, but it was Weber’s work that got the plans in motion. With all these major priorities falling off Tech’s punch list, and all the capital sunk into funding them, it would seem logical that the next five up would similarly take many years to see bear fruit. Except that, within five years, an electrical engineering building, named for Blake Van Leer, the reactor portion of the nuclear facility, an expanded plant building, a chemical engineering building, and the annex to the Lyman Hall chemistry labs would soon follow.

It’s funny, writing this column, because I’m literally learning new things every week when I sit down to research this. And, like usual, when I’m working on a column about the Hill, I cracked open Engineering the New South and Dress Her in White and Gold to learn. Apparently, before he died, Van Leer approved a training facility for the Navy ROTC on Fifth Street in the heart of the campus expansion. The plan was to add a complementary one for the Air Force ROTC not far behind it. Well, a million dollars later, and one of the bigger campus outrages you’ve never heard of later, the reaction to giving prime property to a non-Tech organization was overwhelming. Tech was supposed to receive the building 50 years after its construction, but was already finagling to get control of the structure within five. People were not happy. Needless to say, the other building was never built.

In the meantime, Tech was busy searching for the man who would become the Institute’s sixth president. The Dean of Engineering, Jesse Mason, was pulling double duty as one of the three men on the faculty-alumni search committee, along with an alumni association representative, Fred Storey, and someone from the Georgia Tech Foundation, Walter Mitchell, while heading the faculty committee. The goal was to have announced a candidate by the fall of 1956, after screening more than a hundred names. Of course, other factors were at play, most notably the debate about integration that was looming ominously over the future president’s tenure.

Almost by accident, they found their man.

It just so happened that the president of the University System of Georgia and the executive secretary, Harmon Caldwell and L. R. Siebert dropped by the office of the Dean of Engineering at University of Toledo asking for recommendations for the post. The man happened to be a fellow named Edwin Harrison. He didn’t really expect to get a call back. One day, he got a call asking him to drop by. Within two weeks, he had gone from getting the call, to visiting Tech, to visiting a second time, to being told it was his job to lose. Since we all know he would eventually leave Tech by saying that ten years was plenty long for any one man to be president of a school, it makes his initial comment more understandable.

Harrison must have been a modest man, since his reaction to being offered the job was that, “I don’t know a thing about being a college president, but if you have this kind of faith in me I am certainly going to try the job.” The humility of Harrison endeared him to the search committee much as it would ultimately endear him to the students and faculty he was in charge of leading.

Not even three months after the two men stopped by his office on banks of the Ottawa River in Ohio, Harrison would assume presidency of the Institute, in time for the start of the fall quarter. Weber would return to the job he wanted all along, Dean of Faculties, created with him in mind by Van Leer some two years earlier.

Harrison’s old office sat squarely in the middle of the Toledo Strip, land one of America’s most peculiar wars was fought over back in 1835. That strange conflict, one of my favorite of many amusing American historical oddities, between the militias of Ohio and Michigan over the Toledo Strip would share one thing with the looming battle over integration on the Flats: it was bloodless.

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.