A Personal Tribute to Paul Torgersen

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Paul Torgersen (photo courtesy Virginia Tech)
Paul Torgersen (photo courtesy Virginia Tech)

It was announced Monday that Paul Torgersen, who was president of Virginia Tech from 1993-2000, passed away.

Former Virginia Tech President Paul Torgersen Dies – The Roanoke Times

The cause of his death was not immediately released (per the article linked above), but he had battled cancer in 2008. That battle took its toll, but he overcame it, and in my infrequent encounters with him, he appeared to me to have recovered well from it. The last time I talked to him I person, at a tailgate during the 2013 season, his speech was compromised from surgery that was required to remove the cancer, but he still spoke with confidence and conviction, and he was easy to understand.

Paul Torgersen’s signature is on my Virginia Tech diploma (BSEE, 1987), but I don’t recall the man from my days as a student. I never had one of his classes, and as a clueless, self-absorbed undergrad, I probably barely knew that he was the Dean of Engineering at the time.

Many of you recall him from your days at Virginia Tech, but I first met him back in the early 2000s, back when TechSideline.com was still HokieCentral.com. My interaction with him then and afterwards is where my respect for the man originated and grew.

I’ll cut right to the chase. In September of 2000, I wrote a scathing article raking Jim Weaver over the coals for his handling of a couple of major events of the time: the reinstatement of Derrius Monroe to the football team and the aftermath of the “Lightning Bowl” non-game against Georgia Tech to open the 2000 football season.

Dream Weaver? Not Lately. — Will Stewart, Sep. 6, 2000

In the interest of full disclosure, at that time the battle lines between myself (or more accurately, HokieCentral.com) and Jim Weaver had already been sharply drawn. I started Hokie Central in March of 1996, and in the summer of 1999, was fortunate enough to be able to quit my job and turn Hokie Central into a full-time endeavor.

As part of that, I submitted a formal request in August of 1999 for media access to Virginia Tech athletics. At the direction of Jim Weaver, I was turned down, as we would be for the next 12 years, until we were finally granted access in the summer of 2012 for the football season that fall.

There were other things that went on that I won’t get into. Suffice to say I wasn’t a Jim Weaver fan. So when he took what I considered a few wrong steps, I was quick to voice my disapproval.

Though it was scathing, my article was not gratuitous. I think I presented my case well, and I backed it up by quoting passages from Tech’s Comprehensive Action Plan, newspaper articles, and Jim Weaver’s own public statements.

Before a week had passed, I received an email from Paul Torgersen, a man whom I had never met and with whom I had never interacted. Dr. Torgersen had written a rebuttal of sorts to my article. He didn’t address any of the issues I had addressed directly, but he did provide support for Mr. Weaver and a recounting of Weaver’s positive contributions to Virginia Tech athletics.

I asked Dr. Torgersen if I could run it on Hokie Central, and he said absolutely. It ran under the headline “On Balance,” and I honestly don’t remember if that was my choice for the headline, or his.

On Balance – Paul Torgersen, Sep. 12, 2000

Readers appreciated having both articles to consider. Both sides had said their piece, and fledgling HokieCentral.com had a feather in its cap, having printed an article from the recently-retired president of the university, a man universally respected by Virginia Tech sports fans.

Sometime after that, probably soon after, I asked Dr. Torgersen if I could meet him in his office to talk about media access for HokieCentral.com. I knew that he had no direct influence over Jim Weaver, of course, because he was no longer president of the university, but it couldn’t hurt to pick his brain and possibly enlist him as an ally.

I went to his office, and we talked things over. I wish I could remember more about the meeting, but I do remember that he started off by telling me how well written he thought my article was. He stopped short of agreeing with it, mind you, but he made it a point to let me know how well constructed he thought it was. In short, he respected the effort. I thanked him for his follow-up, and the chance to provide a balanced viewpoint to Hokie Central’s readers.

We discussed media access for HokieCentral.com, and he offered to do the only thing he could do: talk to Jim Weaver about it.

I don’t remember where I saw Dr. Torgersen next, or how long it was between that meeting and our next encounter. But when I saw him again, I broached the subject and asked him if he had had a chance to talk to Weaver about it.

“I did,” he said, then got an odd, wry look on his face. “You know, he feels real strongly about it.”

I laughed. “I know. So … ?”

“Oh, there’s no changing his mind on that topic,” Dr. Torgersen said.

I laughed again, and thanked him for at least making the effort.

From that point on, any time anyone offered to “talk to Jim Weaver” about the issue of media access for TechSideline.com (we changed the name in November of 2000), I would echo Dr. Torgersen’s statement and say, “You can talk to him if you’d like, but there’s no changing his mind on that topic.”

Over the next 14 years or so, I ran into Dr. Torgersen a handful of times, and was introduced to his daughter Karen (and her husband Mike). Dr. Torgersen always remembered me and was always willing to strike up a conversation about Virginia Tech athletics, and I enjoyed our brief talks.

Paul Torgersen kicks in practice days before the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
Paul Torgersen kicks in practice days before the 2000 Sugar Bowl.

Dr. Torgersen is legendary among Virginia Tech sports fans for his love of Tech athletics. He was due to retire on Jan. 1, 2000, but when Virginia Tech made the BCS Championship in football, scheduled for Jan. 4, 2000, Torgersen’s retirement was delayed a week so he could attend the game as president of the university. Torgersen engaged in a field goal kicking contest with assistant AD Sharon McCloskey during one of Virginia Tech’s practices down in New Orleans. (He won, of course.)

Dr. Torgersen may or may not have played a pivotal role in Frank Beamer’s decision to stay at Virginia Tech in November of 2000, after he nearly left for UNC. Accounts differ as to Torgersen’s involvement in the 11th hour negotiations that resulted in Beamer staying. Some accounts credit Torgersen with being the one responsible for keeping Beamer here, but the one time I asked Torgersen about it, he chuckled and deflected, saying, “Oh, I didn’t have anything to do with that.” For the record, I don’t fully believe him. I think he had something to do with it, thought I don’t know exactly what. But that was his nature, to deflect and not take credit.

When my mother passed away from cancer in December of 2008, a friend of mine, F4EHokie on the message boards, passed along to me a quote that I used in her eulogy: “People may not remember what you did, and they may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

That quote fully applies to my experiences with Dr. Paul Torgersen. I know very little about his deeds and accomplishments at Virginia Tech. I can only remember a handful of the things he said to me in our few meetings, and I’m probably not even remembering most of those accurately.

But I remember the way he made me feel. Back in late 2000, at a time when no one in the Virginia Tech administration was treating me with any respect or giving me any credit for anything — and in fact, often took action against me and what I was trying to accomplish — Paul Torgersen treated me with dignity, listened to what I had to say, and tried to help me. I’ll never forget that.

So rest in peace, Dr. Torgersen. It was a life well-lived, with much accomplished. I and many others will always speak well of you.

— Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com

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45 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Very well written, Will. Thanks for sharing this bit of your history with Dr. Torgersen. I’m proud to have his signature on my engineering diploma as well. Dr. Torgersen continues to serve us well, by providing a strong aspirational example….ut prosim.

  2. Will, your wonderful heartfelt tribute to Dr. Torgersen touched me. He was obviously a very special Hokie. I wish we all could have known him, and benefited from his wisdom, and kindness.

  3. My freshman year Dr. Torgeson pulled me out of my calculus class and drove me to the airport in Roanoke because my father had suffered a fatal accident. I will never forget Dr. Torgenson’s kindness and his willingness to reschedule his whole day to take care of a person he had never met before. I also took his course my senior year in engineering. He really was a good man and this world will miss him.

  4. Great article Will.

    My son and I are both industrial engineering graduates and we both took his course, 25 years apart. We told him that one day and kidded him about the Chester Barnard textbook, Functions of the Executive. He graciously told us he had other father son combinations take his course. I passed on to him that Barnard’s basic premise had aided me in my government days when a Committee Chair, a former professor, had asked an AT&T executive who Barnard was. Barnard’s premise is that a leader cannot lead without the permission of those being led. Barnard was the President of New Jersey Bell and the Chair thought an AT&T executive from New Jersey would know that. During my testimony I informed the Chairman that I knew who Chester Barnard was because of Torgersen’s class. He promised to call Dr. Torgersen. When Torgersen and I talked that day at Bogan’s he told me he didn’t get a call but was impressed I remembered the point by Barnard. Dr. Torgersen still used the textbook and kept it held together with a large rubber band.

    My son and I have fond memories of someone who made an impact on us both. Part of what makes Tech special can be found in Dr. Paul Torgersen.

    1. I can’t tell you how many times I, too, have shared examples from Bernard’s book that Torgerson taught us re “power doesn’t come from above”, e.g., a Stop sign doesn’t have the power to make us stop; if we choose to stop, it’s because of the possible consequences”. A great life’s lesson on so many fronts. I recall more from what Torgerson taught me than all of my other professors combined.

  5. I hope someone shares these “recollections” with the Torgersen family. I’m sure they would be delighted to read them.

  6. Good read and that’s the first point, you do write well, not just compared to the snappy one-liners of the blog world, not just to sports writing in general (and I mean WaPo stuff too) but just a good writer out there in the world today who happens to write about VT sports with a subtle touch of philosophy.

    I agree with 134720Hokie below in that all we really want is a little dignity and respect. You’ve been very patient with the fundamental unfairness, (well really rude behavior) of Jim Weaver. In contrast, Torgersen showed respect and appreciation for honest effort and in return, deserves the respect and appreciation in this – well written – article. I’m sure he would have been honored to read this.

  7. One of the greatest Hokies ever. He was my favorite professor, and I’m proud to have received my diploma from his hands.

    1. Agree. I had him as a professor and received my BSE from him as well. I snapped a flattering picture of him the day of the 1980 graduation and mailed him a copy. He returned a nice hand written thank you note on VT Engineering stationary and inquired about my months old engineering “career”. RIP Dr. Torgerson.

  8. Paul Torgersen was an exceptional professor, leader and human. He didn’t just teach difficult engineering courses, he put forth the extra effort to insure that his students learned. My classmates and I (Industrial Engineering ’69) struggled to barely pass (low D’s) a 3 hr. statistics course taught by a boring econ professor. This course was a pre-req to Torgersen’s 5 hr. SQC course (statistical quality control). Then, when he discovered that we didn’t know a “bell curve” from a church bell, he went back and re-taught us the basics of statistics. Most of us got A’s. Torgersen’s leadership as President of VT resulted in lasting advancements and the sincere Ut Prosim culture that have benefited us all. Thanks for sharing your experiences with him, Will.

  9. I had the honor of playing tennis with him many times …. he was such an incredible gentleman and will be missed . I so wish there were more people like him . Rest in peace .

  10. I graduated in the summer of 1969 with my degree I’m Industrial Engineering. I remember taking Dr
    T.’S class in the fall of 1969 and thoroughly enjoyed the class, and his teaching style and ability. After leaving school I enjoyed following his career at Tech and honestly was not surprised at his success there

  11. Will, thanks for the article.

    This may not be appropriate at this time, but could you explain at some point why it was so hard for HC to garner the respect it deserved?

    Thanks!

    1. The short answer is: message boards! This was a major sticking point for Weaver since anybody could basically anonymously say anything on the boards. To him, this violated the definition of “media”

      1. How bizarre. Didn’t ESPN and other college sports sites have message boards as well?

        I guess I could see that as the reason if the RTD or RT didn’t have them. I loved going to school at VT, but it always seemed to me that school leaders, including in the b-school, were so provincial in a lot of ways.

  12. I had a few encounters with Dr. Torgersen over many years. As a scared freshman engineering student in 1976, I was summoned to the Deans office to discuss some English classes I had taken at a Community College. He allowed the classes and I avoided freshman English. As a Senior in Industrial Engineering in 1981, I took Theory of O. with him and will always remember the “Nanook of the North” film (google it). As the father of an aspiring engineer in 2008, I encouraged my son to e-mail Dr. T as part of a class assignment he had. I true Ut Prosim fashion, he responded and answered all the questions asked.
    He was a true scholar, gentleman, and Hokie. Rest in Peace.

  13. Great article, great comments but yet still less than the man. Wiping a tear.

    Chuck Davies Jr Class of 70

  14. Thank you Will. I suppose he is smiling looking down and reading that. I only knew him tangentially myself, but I have to believe he would be honored by this recollection of him. I think it defines what the man was all about, and why he was so universally loved..

    Rest in Peace Dr Paul Torgersen, and thank you for all you did for our Virginia Tech!

  15. Will,
    During my undergrad days, I only knew that Dr. Torgersen was the Dean of Engineering. I did, however, get a chance to meet him during some type of reception my senior year. When I was a grad student and working on my thesis, it was suggested by my primary adviser that I interview him about one of his books which was related to the research I was doing. I was amazed that he took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. He was genuinely enthusiastic during our discussion and I went away wishing that I had taken a class under him.

  16. I did not take Dr. Torgersen’s class, but he did give me my diploma (BSME ’85). During the graduation ceremony for the College of Engineering he stopped at one point to tell us that the next graduate was the son of the Dean of Engineering at UVA. This was greeted by loud but good natured disapproval. Dr. Torgersen then explained that the only reason he mentioned it was in response to the similar treatment that his son had received when he graduated from the College of Engineering at UVA the year before.

    I remember thinking to myself how unfair that was to Dr. Torgersen’s son. He had to go to UVA!

  17. Dr. Torgersen is the type of man that changes the world for the better. He was extremenly intelligent obviously but his greatest blessing was his ability to interact with people and get the best out of them. It did not matter if you were a struggling student at VT or the big time football coach about to bolt town he would win you over with his respect and dignity and make you want to keep going and be a member of his team!

  18. Fitting tribute and very much deserved. I too have Dr. Torgersen’s signature on my diploma as Dean of the College of Engineering. My advisers then (one of them Being Prof. Clough who also became Dean and is now at the Smithsonian) had very good things to say about him as a person and administrator. Thank you for the piece, Will!

  19. Excellent, Will — he was a good man and was great for Virginia Tech. I met him once and he was warm and gracious to me.

  20. Well said Will. I had Dr. Torgersen way back in 2003. The class was “Theory of Organization” and was offered as an engineering dept. elective. The class consisted largely of listening to Dr. T tell anecdotes, life lessons basically. I could listen to the man talk all day. He came across very genuine, with a great sense of humor.

    One anecdote that I (mostly) remember was when he was attempting to get the on campus golf course built. He was denied permission by whatever applicable governing body (BoV?). At any rate, instead, he was able to have some plots of land used for sod research as part of the Agriculture dept (no permission required). As he’s telling the story, he begins drawing on the chalkboard the shapes of these plots of grass. It became clear that these amorphous blobs were slowly becoming a golf hole or two. The class got a good chuckle.

    Another lesson he drove home consistently was to thank people, because people rarely get thanked. Good work is assumed. He talked about sending a thank you note and copying the persons boss and what continued service/help he received from this person in the future.

    A lot of good life lessons about how to work with people.

    RIP and thanks Dr. Torgersen.

    1. I took the class in 1992…and got the same story back then. It wasn’t the BoV, it was the House of Delegates in Richmond that would never approve building a golf course. They would always agree in principle that the state’s major land-grant university should have its own golf course, but when it came time to fund it, it was never a priority.

      So VT stopped trying to build a golf course and submitted proposals for a series of nine agronomy experiments for turf research. How could the House of Delegates possibly deny funding for agricultural research at VT…that is what we are here for! Those projects got approved, and VT got its golf course.

      That was part of the “sometimes it is better to seek forgiveness than permission” lesson.

  21. Well said, Will. Simple, yet touching. In my opinion, one of your best.

    “So rest in peace, Dr. Torgersen. It was a life well-lived, with much accomplished. I and many others will always speak well of you.”

    Yes we will…Yes we will.

  22. Well said. In the end, isn’t some dignity and respect all any of us want. I have more for him and you right now.

  23. Good stuff Will! The Hokie Nation lost a great one this weekend. I also do not believe his account on the Beamer to UNC fiasco either. I believe he was at minimum, the calming influence in those negotiations.

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