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The McBryde Administration: 1891-1907


Photograph of John M. McBryde

(additional information on McBryde)

The college entered a new era on May 7, 1891, when John McLaren McBryde became president.

Born on January 1, 1891, in Abbeville, South Carolina, he was formally educated in South Carolina College and the University of Virginia. At the conclusion of the Civil War, he began farming in Buckingham and Albemarle Counties and during that time he published numerous articles that led to his appointment as professor of agriculture and botany at the University of Tennessee, where he made an outstanding record. From Tennessee he went to South Carolina College as president and was instrumental in the growth of that college into the University of South Carolina. Through the efforts of Benjamin A. "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, the legislature had decided to concentrate all agricultural education in the state at Clemson College, thereby leaving none at the University of South Carolina. This development most likely influenced McBryde's decision to accept the presidency of VAMC which was offered to him officially by letter from Rector Vawter.

McBryde and his faculty along with the board, achieved many "firsts" during his long administration. He was the first president allowed to determine the organization of the school and to select the faculty without any interference from the board or the legislature. He was the first to encourage student activities and clubs, the first to allow the organization in 1891 of an athletic administration, and the first to select orange and maroon as official college colors. He was the first to have a football team, ready to play games, and to have a manager of athletics. The Virginia Tech, begun as the official organ of the Athletic Association, finally became the official organ of the student body. In 1903-1904, he took the first steps toward organizing the corps of cadets and then proudly displayed that group by arranging trips for it to important centers outside the state. McBryde's innovations also included two new buildings on campus; namely, in 1901, the first building made of native limestone, which at one time was known as the YMCA Building, and in 1907, the first agricultural building which was also made of native stone which was named Price Hall for Harvey L. Price long-time Dean of Agriculture.

Of distinction certainly was the fact that McBryde was the first president to be lauded by the state press as administrator, educator, and agriculturist.

Other areas of McBryde's accomplishments included the full report of his plan to reorganize the curriculum, as requested by the Board of Visitors, that became the very foundation stone of the modern VPI. Moreover, McBryde and his faculty handled a particularly disruptive hazing incident, the seeds of which had been planted in Lomax's presidency. The official report described the situation as a disgraceful scene of riot and disorder that luckily was quelled by ringing the bell for return to quarters.

The Board of Visitors, acutely aware of the charges of hazing, rowdyism, and disorderliness at the college, fully backed McBryde and his faculty. Happily the administrative handling of the situation inspired the feeling over the state that McBryde was competent to handle the students.

It has been mentioned that Professor Scott and Graham were let go at the end of the spring term of 1889. They sought reinstatement and failing to get it, they attacked the Board of Visitors and on February 10, 1890, presented written charges against the board to the Virginia Senate Sub-Committee on Public Education. These charges claimed that the Board of Visitors had illegally spent money derived from the Morril Act and implied that if the legislature did not act properly to satisfy Scott and Graham, they intended to carry the matter to Washington where William H. Mahone, a former member of the Readjuster movement in Virginia, was now a staunch Republican within the National Republican Party. The specter of Mahone's power in Washington, from whence the disputed funds flowed, did not go unnoticed by the Democratically controlled legislature. Faced with the implied threat of a possible federal investigation, the legislature named a joint committee from the senate and the house to investigate the situation. The Board of Visitors was asked to make a reply. All of this situation had taken place during Lomax's administration, not McBryde's, but he helped the Board of Visitors prepare its report for the Vawter Committee. All these events showed the demoralizing effect on all previous college faculties who had stood hat in hand ready to depart each time a new president was elected or a new board appointed. Rector Vawter was particularly effective in both his written and oral defenses. It became abundantly clear that the board under Vawter's leadership had clarified its thinking concerning the mission of the college, had formulated a program of action designed to achieve that mission and now believed it had employed a president and the nucleus of a faculty competent to carry the institution toward its mission. Any failure to move in the desired direction, it was implied would be the result of further legislative interference and nit-picking.

After the senate had heard a majority and a minority report, it unanimously accepted the minority report supporting the Board of Visitors. For the first time in the history of the college, a legislative investigation into college affairs had resulted in a vindication tantamount to a vote of confidence in the Board of Visitors. For the first time in its troubled history, the VAMC entered a period of freedom from outside pressure; consequently, McBryde experienced a freedom never enjoyed by any of his predecessors.

Unfortunately, the tremendous growth the college had been achieving, was taking a toll on McBryde's strength. For the first time in his long career at the college, his annual report for the session of 1904-1905 reflected an air of depression and ended thus: "I may add in closing that my health has suffered seriously this session."

Non-administrative affairs also began to add to his frustration and to affect his health; for example, in March, 1901, McBryde, an Episcopalian, had been elected to the first Board of Trustees for Sweet Briar Institute in Amherst County, VA and at the first meeting of the board he had been 'appointed to every committee.' During that summer he was offered the presidency but had asked for a postponement of his decision. As a result, confusing press reports about his decision continued until McBryde declared his intention to stay at VPI and from there conduct the business at Sweet Briar.

The Sweet Briar Board did not press the matter of presidency but did elect McBryde Chairman of the Executive Committee; appointed him superintendent of plans, materials, and equipment; and made him the authoritative manager of all property in the hands of the trustees. He even supervised the content and color of the bricks to be used for buildings; had Professor William Patton of VPI, to design a lake and the roads for the school; and directed a horticultural team from VPI to lay out the orchards. Unfortunately costs exceeded the appropriation for the school. Besides the expected endowment of $500,000 for the new institution turned out to be somewhat less than $200,000. The Sweet Briar Board of Trustees, without delay, stripped McBryde of all authority concerning the institution, and McBryde resigned from that board.

Another frustrating incident for McBryde was the handling of the offer of the presidency of the University of Virginia. When offered that presidency, McBryde wrote to Carter Glass at the University of Virginia, explaining why he could not accept the position. McBryde fully expected the offer to be publicized, but no announcement of the offer was ever made by anyone connected with the University of Virginia.

Because of his declining health, McBryde announced that he would retire at the end of the 1906-1907 session. The board accepted his resignation with reluctance, but the people balked. In sickness or in health, in youth or in old age, the people wanted him. Letters and telegrams poured in, begging him to stay. Even Governor Swanson wrote to him, pledging him full support if he decided to remain; but McBryde, with his usual tact and courtesy, turned aside all pleas.

At its regular meeting in January 1907, the board conferred on McBryde the honorary degree of Doctor of Science and elected him President, Emeritus, thereby making him the first person ever to receive either of these honors from VPI.

McBryde's administration brought phenomenal success, but also some disappointments. Upon retirement, his successes were summarized over and over in the press, but his disappointments and failures were ignored by the outpouring of heart felt tributes from alumni and friends; to these individuals, Dr. McBryde was VPI. The people sent their sons to him, and he took them in. Not only did the people expect McBryde to attend to the academic instruction of their sons, but they also expected him to attend to other duties also, as illustrated by the following three letters picked at random from many of a similar nature:

"My two boys left this morning for your college. Charles is a husky boy and will get along. William is in poor health. Please see that he wears his coat when the weather is bad. "

"I have just received my son's report card and see that his professor is surprised. So am I. Please explain."

"Your school is supposed to build character, so I am sending you my son. I do not want him to smoke, chew, cuss, loaf or run around. He does all of these things now. "

Records indicate that McBryde answered all of these letters, apparently to the satisfaction of the writers. It is no surprise that John McBryde came to be called the "Father of VPI."