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Early co-eds created own Tech traiditions, publications

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 21 - February 22, 1996

(Editor's note: In recognition of the 75th anniversary of women at Virginia Tech, Spectrum is publishing excerpts of Generations of Women Leaders at Virginia Tech, a history of notable university students, faculty and staff members, and alumnae. The first installment of the excerpts was published last week on page 7.)

The early coeds also had to rely on their own creativity when it came to the yearbook. With The Bugle refusing to include them in the class sections, the women created their own yearbook and, with tongue in cheek, called it The Tin Horn. The first Tin Horn, printed by hand, was presented to the first four-year class seniors in 1925. It was dedicated to the "spirit of fun." The coeds called it the "[a]nnual publication of the CO-ED Regiment of the VPI" but noted that the 1925 publication would be the "first and only volume." Nonetheless, VPI coeds issued The Tin Horn three more times: 1929, 1930, and 1931.

Another problem faced by the early female students was living space. Four of the first five women lived at home in Blacksburg, while Terrett, the only out-of-towner in the group, boarded with a professor. The women who followed them were assigned rooms in the private homes of officials and professors on the campus and in town. The first dormitory for women was a residence that had been the home of a family named Chrisman, but Hillcrest was the first dormitory built specifically to house coeds. Opening in 1940, it was quickly dubbed the "Skirt Barn" by the cadets. Even though several men's dormitories were converted to women's dorms beginning in 1966, another residence hall was not built specifically for women until 1972-the high-rise Slusher Hall.

While the early coeds struggled for acceptance, the college was recognizing the achievements of one of its Extension agents-Ella Graham Agnew. Agnew, who in 1910 became the first woman appointed for field service to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the nation's first female home-demonstration agent, began working for the college in 1914. At VPI she developed a handbook for the use of county home-demonstration agents and founded an organization-initially called Tomato Clubs-to teach rural women and girls about growing, canning, and processing. In 1926 she became the first woman to receive VPI's Certificate of Merit, given to her in recognition of her service to rural sections of Virginia.

Women were on the faculty as early as 1921, but most of them were hired to teach home economics and related courses. Mary Moore Davis initiated the resident program in home economics that first year, and offerings included some classes to prepare students for home-demonstration work. Possibly the first woman on the faculty who was not affiliated with the Extension Division was Anna Montgomery Campbell, who was an instructor in education in 1921. The first alumnae on the faculty may have been Ella Russell, who received her undergraduate and master's degrees from VPI in 1926 and 1928, respectively. She joined the chemistry department and taught until her death in 1949.

The Years of the Radford Connection

Burruss was still president in 1944, when the number of women on campus was divided through a merger between VPI and nearby Radford State Teachers College.

Virginia Governor Darden proposed the merger in 1943. He contacted Burruss about serving on a study commission, but Burruss told the governor he was too busy. On instructions from the governor, the president did alert the Board of Visitors, but the board took no action. Nonetheless, the governor moved ahead, appointing his commission.

Considerable excitement developed when the Blacksburg campus heard that John B. Spiers of Radford, a delegate in the General Assembly who was preparing the consolidation bill for legislative action, had promised to draft the bill to help Radford College. According to D. Lyle Kinnear in The First Hundred Years, "When it appeared from the actual bill that one method of achieving this objective was to deny permission for all undergraduate women to reside on the Blacksburg campus, this excitement became intensified. The Corps of Cadets met and passed a resolution urging the retention of coeds at Blacksburg, and even raised money to help defray expenses of a coed committee to go to Richmond to speak against this feature of the merger." Additionally, Kinnear writes, "Women's clubs and women's organizations over the state denounced features of the bill which they thought discriminated against women."

A compromise was reached, allowing women under certain conditions to study on the Blacksburg campus, and the bill was signed by the governor on March 16, 1944. The consolidation changed the names of both schools, with Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute becoming simply Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Radford's name changed to Radford College, Women's Division of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The president of VPI would be the chancellor of Radford College, although Radford would still retain its president.

Coeds were allowed to study on the Blacksburg campus if they were enrolled in agriculture, engineering, applied science, or business administration. Those wanting to pursue teaching studied at Radford. Home-economics majors spent their first two years at Radford and the last two years at VPI. The Blacksburg campus also was the site selected for graduate study.

With World War II under way as the merger commenced, many male upperclassmen at VPI were away from campus, serving in the armed forces. Their absence gave the women new opportunities, and they kept the student activities operating, served as officers of clubs, and headed campus campaigns.

After the war, when Walter S. Newman was president (1947-62), women continued to move into positions heretofore closed to them. Doris Tomcyak served as editor of The Virginia Tech Engineer in 1949-50, Thora Elrath was business manager of the 1950 Bugle and managing editor in 1951, and, in 1953, Betty Delores Stough became the first woman to receive a Ph.D.

But the "first-woman-to" who gained the most public notice was Patricia Ann Miller of Richmond, who in 1959 was awarded a ROTC commission in the Army Women's Medical Specialist Corps. With her registrations for military subjects turned down repeatedly during her years on campus, Miller had applied for a commission in the Medical Specialist Corps. She marched onto the field last at the commissioning ceremonies and was also the last person commissioned.

Meanwhile, the Women's Division of VPI was growing and becoming more diverse as the school experienced a boom in enrollment, accompanied by a building boom. Enrollment on the Blacksburg campus was also taking off. In 1958, it passed the 200 mark, and in 1962-63 it reached 305. In 1963 the Board of Visitors applied to the governor to dissolve the merger, citing the detrimental effects of growth on the abilities of a single governing board. Their request was approved, and the merger was dissolved on July 1, 1964.