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Life & Times of Virginia Tech Presidents

Charles Landon Carter Minor, 1872-79

A single vote reportedly separated Charles Landon Carter Minor, a native of Hanover County, Va., from his closest rival for the presidency of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (VAMC), Virginia’s new land-grant institution. With that one vote, Minor, who held a Master of Arts degree from the University of Virginia and was teaching at Sewanee Episcopal Seminary in Tennessee, became the new school’s first president in 1872. His seven years at the helm of the college, which, nearly 100 years later, would be called Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, would not always be smooth as he gained the dubious reputation of being the only president to trade punches with a professor.

With his three faculty members—not one of them a professor of agriculture or mechanics—and school treasurer, the president opened the doors to VAMC on October 1, 1872, to interested males. By the time William Addison “Add” Caldwell, a 16-year-old farm boy from Craig County, wandered in, the group reportedly was so happy to finally have a student that they awarded Caldwell a scholarship.

By the end of the first week, only 29 students had enrolled. Minor, who had spent a year as president of the Maryland Agricultural College, was convinced that a statement issued by William H. Ruffner, Virginia’s first state superintendent of public instruction, deterred prospective students. Ruffner, who had called VAMC “a truly technical school of secondary grade,” created the impression, Minor believed, that VAMC would be a technical high school rather than a college. He also believed that prospective applicants were waiting to see if the new school would begin to offer something more than technical training.

Ruffner’s description was dropped from all reports, changes were made in the program, and Minor placed advertisements in newspapers across the state. By year’s end, the enrollment of 132 exceeded expectations, causing Minor to complain that the school’s one building—the Preston and Olin Building—was inadequate. He pushed for additional monies, and in 1874 the General Assembly appropriated $45,000 to construct additional buildings.

During Minor’s term, donations of livestock, machinery, seeds, and tools helped equip the college farm, which was a training ground for students; a library was started, although the 501 books donated the first year were mostly dust collectors; several “messes” were constructed to feed students on campus, drawing the usual complaints from the students about college food; and commencement activities were held for students receiving certificates—not degrees—for completing their three-year programs.

Most of the students lived in town, and complaints poured into the college about their behavior. Gen. James H. Lane, the professor of mathematics and foreign languages with responsibility for military training, proposed that the college be organized along military lines to keep students under constant supervision. Minor believed that the military drill required of all able-bodied students was sufficient and opposed Lane’s views.

Two factions developed, rumors of dissension spread throughout the state, and the situation deteriorated. During a faculty meeting, the generally easygoing Minor and hot-headed Lane, dubbed “Gamecock” by the students, got into a fistfight, leading to charges and convictions of disorderly conduct, an erosion of confidence in the Minor administration, a decline in enrollment, and, ultimately, Minor’s removal from office, albeit amid howls of protest throughout the state, when a pro-military faction took over the board of visitors.