T. Marshall Hahn

Thomas Marshall Hahn, Jr., was born in Lexington, Kentucky on December 2, 1926, to Thomas Marshall Hahn, Sr., and Mary Elizabeth Boston Hahn. His father taught physics at the University of Kentucky. Hahn and his two younger siblings—David and Elizabeth—grew up during the Great Depression in Lexington with little money. When Marshall Jr. reached school age, his father took a year off from teaching in order to complete his Ph.D. in Chicago. Hahn entered the first grade at a public school near the university on Chicago’s South Side.

Upon entering school, his teacher immediately recognized that Marshall was a gifted student and chose to advance him to the second grade, which he completed before moving back to Lexington with his family. Back in Lexington, Marshall worked hard during the days of the Depression delivering newspapers, working part-time in a florist shop, and helping with daily chores in the family vegetable garden. He continued to advance scholastically in the public schools of Lexington and was allowed to skip ninth and twelfth grades. However, he never completed high school before moving on to college.

Hahn enrolled at the University of Kentucky at the age of fifteen with aspirations to pursue a degree in physics. As the United States entered World War II, Hahn began his undergraduate studies on an accelerated wartime schedule. He graduated two-and-a-half years later in 1945, at the age of eighteen with a BS in physics “with highest honors.”

Upon graduation, Marshall joined the Navy, spending a year teaching physics at the Naval Academy Preparatory School. A year later, he moved to a civilian job at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in White Oak, Maryland. From there, he decided to pursue a career in physics and applied to several universities’ graduate programs. He accepted a graduate assistantship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Before leaving his job in suburban Maryland, Marshall met his future wife, Ms. Margaret Louise “Peggy” Lee of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, who was a recent graduate of Madison State Teacher College and teacher in Hyattsville, Maryland. After meeting at a Methodist Youth Fellowship Christmas program, their romance developed and continued after Marshall left for MIT. They were to marry in 1948. Together, they had three children—William, Elizabeth, and Anne.

Hahn thrived under the fast-paced conditions of MIT. He completed his doctorate in 1950 at the age of twenty-three. However, after observing the exceptional research of his fellow classmates, he decided to pursue a different career path—university teaching and academic administration. After receiving his doctorate, Hahn accepted a position as an associate professor in the physics department at the University of Kentucky. During his four years back at Kentucky, he became a full professor, director of the graduate studies in physics, and director of Kentucky’s nuclear accelerator laboratories.

At the University of Kentucky, Hahn realized that he was limited in what he could accomplish within the school’s physics department. So, a chance meeting with family friend and chief academic officer for Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Louis A. Pardue, seemed promising. During their meeting, Pardue mentioned that the chair of VPI’s physics department was planning on retiring. The position would provide a great opportunity for growth, as VPI’s department did not have true graduate or research programs. He applied for the job and quickly accepted an offer. He served as the department chair for five years, during which he tirelessly sought out sources of funding and equipment for his department to attract more physics students. During his five years, physics enrollment tripled, he developed a new master’s program in nuclear engineering and a Ph.D. program in physics. He was able to obtain more than $635,000 in research grants, which included money for a nuclear reactor simulator for teaching purposes, the first in the nation. He also helped the president, Dr. Walter Newman, in getting $1 million in state funding for a new physics building.

At the time that Hahn became a member of the staff at VPI, the school was extremely limited in scope. It was largely restricted to white male students with a compulsory military system for most freshmen and sophomores. Its curriculum focuses on professional and occupational training, especially in the fields of engineering and agriculture. President Newman realized the need to break away from the original charter of the school to become a more comprehensive land-grant institution and he laid the groundwork for a change to occur.

While Hahn had become devoted to VPI, he still desired to advance his career further in academic administration. In 1959, he accepted an appointment as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State University. President Newman was disappointed to lose Hahn and he wished to remain in contact with him, alluding to a possible future for Hahn back at VPI. Hahn spent three years as dean at Kansas State. Throughout his time away from VPI, President Newman did keep in touch with him, making his intentions clear in 1961 that he wished for Hahn to succeed him as president of VPI. In the meantime, Hahn had been offered the opportunity to become president of the University of South Carolina. In November of 1961, the rector of the VPI Board extended an offer to Hahn and he soon turned down the offer from USC and began discussions with the VPI Board of Visitors and President Newman. At a special meeting of the Board in Richmond on December 4, 1961, Hahn was formally appointed as the eleventh president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, two days after turning thirty-five. His appointment became effective on July 1, 1962. For many years, he would be the youngest land-grant college president in the nation.

Marshall Hahn returned to VPI in the summer of 1962 knowing the challenges that he would face, but confident that he would be able to take advantage of the many opportunities that he saw for growth and change. At the age of thirty-five, he was an energetic and visionary leader with a marveling level of enthusiasm for his work. During his twelve and a half years as president, he was able to accomplish more than most people ever thought imaginable.

Looking back on his appointment, Hahn recalled that he had accepted the VPI presidency “deliberately, with the idea that with engineering and agriculture, both of which had some national prominence, that you could develop a nationally prominent institution…that you could really build.” He further explained, “There was a real opportunity to stir things up. The state needed to be awakened, the institution needed to be vitalized, and the opportunity was just hitting you over the head every morning.”

Beginning on his first day as president, Hahn immediately began referring to VPI as a “university,” which did not go unnoticed by those who called upon him on his first day in office. It soon became apparent that Hahn envisioned a transformed institution with preserved traditions. He showed courage in developing a vast pool of knowledge by encouraging more programs for research and expanding the areas of study. During his time as president between 1962 and 1974, Hahn oversaw the addition of thirty-three new academic programs and three new colleges, including the flourishing College of Arts and Sciences as well as the College of Veterinary Medicine. Student enrollment nearly tripled, increasing from 6,358 to 17,470 students. He opened enrollment to women and African Americans and saw the first hiring of a black faculty member as well as the graduation of the school’s first African American woman. He severed VPI’s ties with Radford College, eliminated the compulsory military service requirement for freshmen and sophomores and opened the Corps of Cadets to women. The physical campus grew tremendously as well during Hahn’s tenure, with the construction of many major academic, athletic, and residential facilities, including Lane Stadium, Cassell Coliseum, Cowgill Hall, Slusher Hall, and many others. Perhaps most significantly, Hahn’s administration proposed legislation in 1970 to change the school’s name to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, to reflect VPI’s transformation into a major research university. It would later be encompassed by the name Virginia Tech, as it is known today.

By the late 1960s, it became evident that Hahn wished to move on to another challenge. After holding the highest position possible at a state university, he began to see the business sector as his next mountain to conquer. Robert B. Pamplin Sr., the chairman of the board and president of Georgia-Pacific Corporation and trustee of Virginia Tech, attempted to pull Hahn away from Tech first. Although he was interested, he was not ready to leave the school yet. Beginning in January 1973, Hahn instead served as a member of the board of Georgia-Pacific. Pamplin later said of Hahn, “He was a good disciplinarian, smart, a hard worker and had integrity. I felt sure that we could train him to be a good executive.”

Despite making a pledge to stay another ten years at the school, Hahn knew that he could not stay that long and that it was his time to move on. He left Virginia Tech in 1974 to become president of Georgia-Pacific’s chemical division. He was made chief executive officer and chairman of the board in 1983, two positions he held until 1993 when he retired. During his time as CEO, Hahn saved the company from a heavy debt load and watched it prosper with sales nearly doubling, increasing from $6.5 billion to $12.3 billion. He was named CEO of the Year for the Forest Products and Lumber Industry by The Wall Street Transcript for seven years and was recognized as “Top 10 Best Executives: Big Business Category” by the Gallagher Report in 1986 and 1988.

Upon retiring in 1993, Hahn joined his wife Peggy at their beloved 1,000-acre farm, Hickory Hill, in Montgomery County. Always one to lead an active life, he continued to serve on the board of Georgia-Pacific as well as the boards of Norfolk-Southern, and the Foundation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hahn enjoys spending his spare time raising cattle, playing tennis, traveling the world to hunt or sail his yacht, and following his beloved Hokies. He continues to be a member of Virginia Tech’s President Circle and Ut Prosim society.

T. Marshall Hahn was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 2010.

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