Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 2
Winter 1992

William E. Lavery

Retirement is not good-bye.

by Su Clauson

It was a hot day last August when William E. Lavery retired from Virginia Tech as chancellor and William Preston Professor of International Affairs; but the university had to wait through an accreditation tour of Japanese universities, a marathon of Washington meetings, and a visit by Senegalese representatives before officially recognizing the retirement of the former president on a brisk November evening.

This is retirement Bill Lavery style

In the past three years, he scarcely has had a chance to shift gears. He has served as chairman of the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID)'s advisory committee to its task force on development assistance and cooperation and on the board of directors for the Center for University Collaboration in Development, as well as developing a Virginia Tech-directed reforestation project in the African nation of Senegal. He's also been active in lining up a potential collaborative project upgrading the quality of Indonesian universities.

Those who still see the president emeritus working in his third floor Burruss Hall office know Lavery is no more likely to leave the service of the university than when he stepped aside from the Virginia Tech's 12th presidency in January 1988. He has been involved with the university since 1966 when he arrived from the Federal Extension Service to serve as a director of Virginia Tech's Extension Division. From 1968-73 he served as vice president for finance and later served as executive vice president before becoming president in 1975.

"After 26 years, this is home," he says, a relaxed grin spreading over his face. "Long ago we decided that when we left the presidency we would stay right here and serve Virginia Tech and the community."

Lavery seldom uses the first person singular, not out of fondness for the royal "we," but out of deference for those he considers part of his team. In this case, he's referring to his wife, Peggy, an active partner in the presidency who spoke to student groups and organized numerous official parties, dinners, and luncheons.

During his presidency, Lavery was known as a consensus manager, gathering input from his board of visitors or staff before making a decision. "He was very skillful in dealing with controversies," says former BOV Rector Lee Tait ('41). "I don't think we ever dissolved without resolving them."

"Virginia Tech couldn't have found anybody with greater skill at bringing the university together after a decade of rapid growth," says his former executive assistant, Lon Savage. "He brought a lot of stability. Faculty and administrators found him open and very receptive to their ideas. In his low-key, easy-going way, he created the environment in which Virginia Tech could grow in quality."

Virginia Governor Mills Godwin Jr., speaking at Lavery's inauguration on October 16, 1975, said, "History has a way of matching men and circumstances. And in the changing picture of higher education across this country and Commonwealth, I think we are fortunate indeed to have a man such as Dr. Lavery heading this particular educational community in this particular period of its history."

Lavery was also known for his finesse at getting funds from the state General Assembly and his persistence in pursuing funding for the veterinary college. "That school took 10 years and three sets of governors, but when (Gov. John) Dalton came up, Bill Lavery had everything in place and was ready to go," Savage said. Lavery was so popular with both parties that Gov. Charles Robb asked him to consider running for the Senate, while the Republicans inquired about his interest in the governor's seat.

Lavery's main weakness, as he sees it, during the much-publicized land swap and athletic controversies that finally made him realize it was time to step aside, was not making the public more aware of what actions were already set in motion for the good of the university. In the athletic situation, he was already working on a restructuring of athletics that would separate the athletic director's position from that of the football coach and allow for more institutional control. Lavery also thought the press blew out of proportion the issues involved in the exchange of university land along U.S. 460 for a large tract of farmland. He thought then that the publicity "would unleash so many pressures that the transaction couldn't be done," Savage says.

"He is a man of integrity. He didn't act on his own behalf. He always put the university first," says Tait, a former rector of the board of visitors.

"When you look at the whole history of the Lavery administration, you see a very positive picture," Savage says. "During those years the university improved by almost every measure--graduate enrollment, total enrollment, research expenditures, faculty salaries, student SAT scores, and private contributions. The quality of students and faculty increased every year at a time when that was not happening elsewhere. Virginia Tech really increased in stature. Bill Lavery presided over all of that."

Lavery has been praised by student leaders for his efforts to include them in the decision making process. Sherry Lynn Wood ('90), former editor of the Collegiate Times student newspaper, was impressed with Lavery's support of a student board of visitor member. She says that a number of students referred to him as "Uncle Bill" in a manner that was fond, rather than derisive. "I think that was a very appropriate name for him. People saw him as a paternal figure, not in a patronizing way, but in an open, friendly, yet respected way," she says.

A report prepared by Virginia Tech's Office of Institutional Research and Planning Analysis lists 13 major accomplishments during his 13 years. They include a capital campaign that doubled its original $50-million goal, extensive progress in international education, a new Corporate Research Center, research expenditures that almost quadrupled, an ambitious building program, student SAT scores that rose to 200 points above that national average while elsewhere they were sliding, a graduate enrollment increase of nearly 40 percent, national status in computer use, the opening of the veterinary school, and a change in the national status of faculty salaries from the bottom third to the top fourth.

Lavery sees his major accomplishment as enhancing the quality of Virginia Tech's programs, particularly those in graduate studies and research. "I like Dr. McComas' present emphasis on undergraduate programs and on public service; it seems particularly timely now as part of our land-grant mission," he adds. "These additional emphases demonstrate our fully comprehensive nature."

The university is following a national trend toward more private support, especially for scholarships and specialized laboratory equipment, Lavery says. Private support took a major jump soon after Lavery recruited Charles Forbes, vice president for development and public relations, to head the first capital campaign. Lavery also sees the university more involved in providing leadership for regional economic development, assisting with the economic development of developing nations, and providing more leadership in international educational and industrial cooperations.

Lavery feels his own strengths in service to Virginia Tech have always been his people skills--a personableness praised by virtually everyone who has come into contact with him. Says Savage, "He communicates well. He's very, very open, and he's a modest guy. Bill Lavery is a fine person; everyone wants to help him if they can."

Always, Lavery seemed to exude a sense of enjoying the presidency. And his family--Peggy and their four children--seemed to enjoy the public life of the presidency every bit as much as he did. They entertained the board of visitors, visiting dignitaries, and politicians often, with the children--three of whom became Virginia Tech students--serving the appetizers and drinks.

"The presidency is a 24-hour-a-day job," Lavery said. "If you want to see your family, you have to make it a family enterprise. We found it exhilarating."

Peggy agrees. "Fortunately we all enjoy entertaining and enjoyed meeting people. It was a wonderful opportunity for our children that most young people don't have. We didn't really have a philosophy of childrearing--we kept the lines of communication open and kept them involved. Everybody knew that Sunday night was family night. Even when the kids were in college--Mike, Lori, and Debbie were at Tech and Mary was at Radford--everybody came home for dinner."

Lavery grew up on a farm in western central New York State, where he was president of his high school (P)class and attended the local junior college before obtaining his bachelor's degree from Michigan State in 1953. From there, he taught public school, served in the U.S. Army, and earned his master's in public administration (George Washington University) and his doctorate in extension administration from the University of Wisconsin while working for the Federal Extension Service.

"I was raised by a family who believed in working hard, but also recognized the need to enjoy yourself as you go along, otherwise it's not worth all the effort," he says. "You take your work seriously, yet you don't take yourself too seriously. You know you're going to have some disappointments along the way, so you appreciate your accomplishments and don't stew over the negatives.

"I learned this set of values at an early age, but they really began to have meaning for me when I became president. It was fun--mostly fun. We're just common people; we were happy to have this opportunity to serve Virginia Tech."

At 61, Lavery looks youthful, trim, but somehow as casual as ever in the tailored, pin-striped suits he's wearing while dealing with the USAID and other Washington agencies involved in university collaborations. His plans for retirement include attending more Hokie games, learning to play golf, chairing several international development collaborations, and serving with Peggy as the honorary chairmen of Blacksburg's South Main Street Landscape Project.

"I'm going to stay involved," he says. "There's still much international work to be done. The only difference retirement has made is that I'm able to say 'no' once in awhile."

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 2 Winter 1992