clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Rearview Mirror: The Magnificent Seven

New, comment

Yes, I chose a title evoking Bernstein on purpose.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Edwin Harrison and his airplane.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/4060)

I think I could be perfectly happy turning this column into a variety of columns (European history? Chicago? Food?) but today we’ll indulge a classical music habit as we close the book on one of Tech’s most consequential presidents.


Note: For those with ninety minutes to burn, I found this fantastic interview via Marylin Somers and Living History from 1995 with President Harrison about a variety of things.

On October 28, 2019, Dr. Ángel Cabrera was carried across the Ferst Center stage on the Ramblin’ Reck to be invested as the 12th President of the Georgia Institute of Technology. In his speech, he paraphrased a notable Edwin Harrison truism that a decade is long enough for any one man to be in charge of any one college, when discussing all the things he aimed to achieve in his time at Tech. That’s somewhat out-of-context for the new president to use, though. After all, Harrison said this only in the waning days of his presidency, days that were closing faster than anyone in the Tech community really could have imagined or intended. I’m not sure that he would have thought quite like that, had he been in a different circumstance. And the circumstance and the factors acting on the president, as well as other close partners like his interim predecessor Paul Weber and controller Jamie Anthony, largely stemmed from time-old issues: state and institute politics.

It wasn’t really a secret that the mid-to-high levels of Institute leadership were still seething over Harrison’s reorganization in 1965. Many Tech educators and administrators were “traditionalists” in the mold of Jesse Mason, but that distinction was outdated even when it was first suggested. John Saylor Coon, the first professor of Tech’s first major, was renowned in his field as an innovator both in his field and as an educator. He moved Tech, first as a teacher, then as head of the shops, and finally, and most impactful, as dean of engineering, from a glorified trade school to one of the American leaders in engineering education. Mason, on the other hand, stagnated and regressed, but he was a powerful man. Power has its advantages and hanger-on, so he had many friends. These were the internal adversaries of Edwin Harrison.

The “powerful traditionalist elements” that remained against substantial curricular reform, research, and graduate education didn’t like Harrison because he removed Mason. The progressive faculty didn’t like Harrison because he didn’t do enough. It was the classic definition of a no-win scenario.

To make matters worse, the newest president of the Board of Regents, George L. Simpson, was incredibly gung-ho about growing research, publication, and graduate student enrollment. In siding with the progressive elements of the Tech faculty, he was following the prevailing trends of national higher education, and a lot of Tech’s nationally-renowned peers, to be sure, but for Harrison to simply toe the line was not that simple. Though the traditionalists ultimately would not prevail, in the short run, Harrison couldn’t simply disregard them and expect any kind of success.

To replace Mason atop the engineering school, a man named Arthur Hansen was hired away from the University of Michigan, and he immediately got to work reshaping the curriculum in his image. The deans of the Graduate Division and the General College were in need of replacement as well, due to turnover in the staff. Thus, what was one reorganization kept spinning its wheels into a second, and it took three years before the music stopped and everyone grabbed their chairs in April of 1968. It would be Vernon Crawford in as the dean of the General College and the Engineering Experiment Station would come under the wing of graduate education. But then the bottom fell back out.

Arthur Trabant, who had been hired over from Buffalo in 1966, decided to leave to become the president of Delaware. Harrison, who had lost Weber as his number-two man at the beginning of the reshuffling, had his replacement yanked away for more power and money and less demands from the intense internal conflict amongst Tech admin and faculty when he finally thought everything was lined up and ready to grow.

Funding, the age-old companion of politics, came into play, too, as federal aid slowed and the chorus of folks from faculty to regents sang louder and louder the song of Tech’s failure to catapult itself directly into the ranks of the nation’s elite institutions. Simpson, an outsider with a background traced to North Carolina and NASA, intended to set growth in motion in all of his state schools, but particularly his flagships in Athens and Atlanta. He was the perfect ally for the politically weaker school in Atlanta when it came to securing state funding, particularly from noted antagonist of decent humanity Lester Maddox, sitting governor, who was not particularly fond of funding most things. Simpson would find an ally in Arthur Hansen, conscious of this or not, as they both moved to initiate core curricula, the former to standardize basic higher education across the state, permitting students more freedom of movement between their campuses in the event of a transfer, and the latter unifying education standards across the majors in his college of engineering, which had previously been scattered through many completely overlapping courses, save for a few nuances. Simpson’s qualities are well observed, Engineering the New South notes, in his dedication for the building today known as the Joseph Howey Physics Building, when he waxed poetic on the, “hard, uncompromising nature of science [in a building] in which dedicated, often abstracted people pursue a lonely, hard profession.” What a bundle of joy.

Simpson, failing to see his views advanced with the vigor and speed that he would have liked from Edwin Harrison, fell back on his personality. In this case, he could tend to be a micromanager who obsessed over minor details and major staffing decisions, often ones that were, to this point, miles outside of the purview of the regents. Despite an initially warm relationship with Harrison, a convenience given because of his influence in Atlanta, the hot-and-cold Simpson and the eternal balancer Harrison “clashed repeatedly over matters of institutional progressive.” Perhaps you can see where this is going, with Harrison fighting factions in his staff and his boss.

McMath and others note that Harrison’s resignation was still completely unexpected, and, even with the man still alive at the time of their publication in 1985, a man who was interviewed extensively for their book, second only to Joseph Pettit, the president at the time, they were unable to parse together the entire logic behind it.

Sidenote: Who wouldn’t go to lengths to get to be a fly on the wall for some of their interviews - Mayor Ivan Allen, Govs. Ellis Arnall, George Busbee, Lester Maddox, Herman Talmadge, and Carl Sanders, President Jimmy Carter, Tech figures like James Boyd, George P. Burdell, Vernon Crawford, and Paul Weber, Deans James Dull and George Griffin, Tech presidents Harrison, Pettit, Hansen, Coach Bobby Dodd and his wife, Homer Rice, Tech president and primary advocate of co-education Blake Van Leer’s wife Ella - just a huge list.

July 2, Harrison had written Simpson about replacing Trabant, in ways that did not align with Simpson’s view of how the process should be undertaken, apparently, because upon receiving the response to his document, on July 3, 1968, he resigned, effective at the end of the next school year, provided a replacement was not found prior to that date. Intending to announce the news after the holiday weekend had passed and he had time to vacation, instead, the AJC had it as front page news on their Fourth of July special. In an interesting about-face, Harrison’s spokesman provided the now-consequential quote that he believed that “no college president should serve more than 10 years in the position,” and that Trabant’s departure was an ideal time for his successor to choose his own right-hand man. It also added to the allusions that Harrison was ready to retire. This was an interesting about-face even from the previous day. With turnover in his closest reports, ongoing conflict with his faculty, and a bitter feud with his boss, Harrison made the rather sensible choice and, for his own sake, got out.

On the whole, after some thought, this abrupt action shouldn’t really be a surprise. This is the man who, after all, saw Alabama’s vote against repealing and replacing the 140 Rule and strode up to the podium to announce Tech’s departure from the conference. That’s why that vote was 11-0, for the record. Harrison, like Dodd, didn’t desire departure from the SEC, but he acted decisively when he thought it was his only option. Much in the same character, when the going got too tough, he got going, for his own sake and sanity.

While the regents anonymously tipped that Harrison was under review for replacement anyways, thanks to him not moving Tech up the academic ladder fast enough, a state senator called for an investigation as to what actions exactly inspired Harrison to resign. This was never undertaken.

Before he was out the door, J. P. Stevens and Company announced that Harrison would join the fold following his Tech departure. So much for actual retirement. Ending his term early, he was granted a leave of absence for the final four months, and Crawford stepped into the role of interim president in his place. It was in these final months that Harrison used his lame duck status to called for direct action to fix Tech’s systematic issues and abandon their “selfish interests.”

The craziest thing about all of this, particularly the hate and admonishment he constantly received from Simpson, was that the man was absolutely beloved. Echoing the final dinner honoring Dean George Griffin in 1964 upon his retirement as dean, in which Harrison had served as the emcee, hundreds of people from around the country turned out to wish him well. On April 9, 1969, the day was declared “Wonderful Ed Day,” and dubbed the “largest and most memorable demonstration of the sixties at Tech,” a motion which Tech alumnus and Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen extended across the whole city.

The most remembered part of the day came when a gaggle of Tech students unveiled a five foot tall departing memento for their president. See, when Dean George Griffin left his post, a group of seven students, self-proclaimed as the “Magnificent Seven,” climbed the Archibald Power Plant and stole the ancient timekeeper whose shrill peal haunts daytime yuppies in Midtown to this day. The whistle, which Griffin received for his well-known perception as the true Tech man, was quite the prize. But for Harrison, the honor was topped. In what appears to be a copycat crime, five years later, a new Magnificent Seven - listen to the linked movie theme, it’s fantastically catchy - one of whom was the sitting SGA president, Carey Brown, scaled the 115 foot-tall tower and snagged the east-facing T for the first time. At Allen’s insisting, the T was returned to campus via helicopter amid the celebration.

Another sidenote: I could just write highlight reels of old Technique editions and they would be hilarious.

In what is now both highly illegal, well guarded, and divisive, the first T theft was seen as more of a lark. In fact, presidents like John Crecine are on the record as saying “I think stealing the ‘T’ off the Tech Tower is among the all-time greatest rituals,” and it is well-noted that, once, the Ts were in such high demand that the students resorted to stealing the Hs. The administrative blind eye turned towards the deed has greatly shifted, especially in the days since a young woman unaffiliated with the campus died attempting to summit the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, and now comes with likely expulsion as the punishment. It isn’t known how much of this is fact and how much is urban legend, but it is said that pressure and heat sensors in the roof, cameras, and fiber optics guard the large steel letters. The successful 1999 theft, which followed a 1997 attempt to steal all four Ts at once complete with rappelling gear and getaway drivers, was thought to be the last one “possible” and came swiftly on the heels of the campus death. The half-dozen or so students involved published an anonymous letter from George P. Burdell in the Technique asking for amnesty in return for presenting the T at the Wreck Parade the next Homecoming. They were swiftly, harshly denied, and the T was thus never found, though it periodically published photos “on vacation” in other locales.

In the meantime, it has become commonplace for other Ts around campus to be stolen, in lieu of the Tech Tower T. The only notable campus event to originate in my old West Campus freshman dorm building, Caldwell Hall, came after the failed 2001 attempt to heist the T. In response to being displaced mid-year from their dormitory for renovations, the group, dubbed the “Caldwell Liberation Army,” marauded around campus on back-to-back nights, ultimately stealing 32 Ts from 16 buildings.

“We were all talking about stealing the big ‘T’ and how you couldn’t do that any more. We then noticed how many other ‘T’s there were on campus buildings, and we thought, ‘Hey, what if all the little ‘T’s disappeared around Atlanta? That would be even bigger than stealing the big one.’ So we got together, four of us, and started pillaging Tech for all the little ‘T’s.” After noting that they started with Fitten and Woodruff North, “We had attempted to steal a frat letter, but we realized that they would find out who it was and kill us, so we decided no fraternities or sororities”...[while] the Van Leer Building’s ‘T’s were stolen in broad daylight. “When the person…was hanging off the CoC, he was literally holding on with his legs. A car turned the corner to go to the architecture building. It turned out to be a streetsweeper, but [they] took a nice ten-foot fall to the ground. We feel bad that we stole them, but…because we didn’t have our freshman experience, we are not surrendering the ‘T’s back.” (Technique, 2002).

Similarly, in 2005, a replica of the T was stolen from Smithgall, and in 2006, vinyl letting from campus signs started disappearing. A 2010-2011 estimate put Tech’s annual T damage at around $100,000 worth of Ts. Meanwhile, this columnist is absolutely certain that the Caldwell boys, as well as the folks that came after them, are directly responsible for every campus building built since the Stamps Health Center having been built with signage that contains Ts etched into steel sheets. Think about it. That’s not how it is on any old buildings, while every modern Tech building has an identifiable yet unique display in its brand identity. That has to be to discourage petty T theft. But, not to be outdone, to this day, sporadic T thievery continues on campus, most frequently from banners and signage, particularly pertaining to campus construction.

Virginia _ech now posts a guard outside Lane S_adium, thanks to Tech’s repeated pillaging of VPISU’s signage. During the middle of a game at North Carolina State one year, Tech fans were able to pilfer a T from inside the stadium and ones from outside in Athens. And I’ve definitely seen pictures of a T-less Memorial Stadium in Clemson, I believe via the scion of Tech Twitter, Not Paul Johnson, but the only thing that’s coming up in my Google search attempts is articles I’ve wrote about other Clemson things. Helpful. The most recent successful heist from Tech Tower occurred on spring break of 2014, the first since 1999. The student was caught, charged and they intended to expel him, but he was merely suspended through the summer.

As for Harrison, though, he would go on to work his seven years in industry before finally retiring in the mid 1970s. He would enjoy 25 years of retirement before ultimately passing in 2001 at the age of 85. He was the president that integrated Tech, a task he was singled out as being able to do well, and one that he executed flawlessly and without controversy, noting in an interview decades later that, to avoid the KKK protesting his house, he merely admired them from above as he flew his airplane in lazy, looping circles in a blue sky day. The education the students received, as well as those doing the learning and the teaching, were all of higher quality when he left than when he arrived. The place was more than twice as large, too, and was a more effective fundraiser. Ultimately, though, the rumbling and unsteady ground he stood on would be a harbringer of what was to come across the campus. His reorganizations were ineffective at finding a steady solution, and, much as the athletic program would spend the next several years wandering in the wilderness, so would the academic program, through the blight and upheaval of the 1970s.

The shop-culture, all-male, all-white, elite bastion of the Southeastern Conference Georgia School of Technology that entered the postwar era would go through much more structural upheaval following Edwin Harrison’s departure, but it was absolutely necessary change. The Georgia Institute of Technology that ultimately emerged from that blight and darkness, number one degree granter of women, minorities, and total engineers, a pioneer in many fields, and the spark plug in the economic engine that runs the modern world city of Atlanta, and indeed the entire Southeast, came because someone had to make hard decisions, appeal to his students and staff, and be steadfast in his leadership. That man, without a doubt, was ‘Wonderful’ Edwin D. Harrison.

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. For the upcoming schedule, see last week’s column here.