'Dr. T' was more than a university president - he was a friend to us all

If you’re an alumnus, student, constituent or just a Virginia Tech fan, there’s probably a place on the Blacksburg campus that feels like “home” to you.

Maybe it’s your freshman year dorm, or a classroom where you felt a special connection to your instructor. Maybe it’s the Duck Pond or the Drillfield, or your seat at Lane Stadium. Whenever you’re there, like a comfortable chair, it just feels like “home.”

For Paul Torgersen, who passed at age 83 on March 29, there were many such places on Virginia Tech’s 126-acre campus. After serving 20 years as dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and eight years as the university’s president, he visited and made an impact on nearly every place on this campus.

Even moving up the academic ladder from instructor to dean to president, he insisted that he continue teaching because he enjoyed being around the students. Theory of Organization – that was his class, and anyone who took it loved and admired his style in front of a room filled with students.

Comfy in the big chair at Burruss Hall, speaking to the Board of Visitors, or talking to a group of students in ISE4004, Paul was in his element.

But perhaps no place felt more at home for Paul – we called him “Dr. T” – than when he was around the Virginia Tech football team, particularly at football practice. During his presidency, he would be a frequent visitor at Tech practices, and in retirement, he’d attend workouts, sitting in a folding chair while watching the Hokies practice. He was never without a witty comment about a player or coach. Gosh, he loved the Hokies.

He had a beautiful, temperature-controlled private box, but Paul preferred to be on the sidelines watching the game. He wanted to be near the team, standing in the muck on the field.

On Fridays of road trips, Paul and Senior Woman Administrator Sharon McCloskey would engage in a field-goal kicking contest at the visitor’s stadium. That was until, one day, Torgersen unveiled a flat-toed boot to help him kick. “Unfair,” shouted the competitive McCloskey. The players, coaches and media always found the humor and irony of the university president kicking field goals (or at least attempting them) at the end of a road workout refreshing.

During the 1990’s, Torgersen would play weekly handball games in Cassell with former trainer Eddie Ferrell (now deceased) and members of the faculty. At the end of the 1995 season, Ferrell’s team won what Paul claimed was a “highly disputed” championship of their friendly series. That didn’t stop John Ballein, Tech’s current associate AD for football operations, from having a trophy presented to Ferrell and put on display at the team’s Sugar Bowl hospitality room in New Orleans. After a few days, however, the trophy was gone.

“Paul, where is Eddie’s trophy?” someone asked.

“Check the river,” Paul responded with a chuckle.

The president, evidently, had tossed the disputed trophy into the mighty Mississippi.

Paul had that tremendous quick wit and was known for his self-deprecating humor. He would always offer a quick word to create a chuckle, whether he was meeting with a group of students or the Board of Visitors. He had that knack.

Also, as president, he could park pretty much anywhere he wanted – and usually did. “Presidential Privilege!” he would shout at me as he angled his car between two dumpsters behind Cassell so he could race in to his treadmill to get in a workout.

The white BMW with the vanity plate “TENNIS 1” was always near Cassell. Paul, a varsity tennis player at Lehigh, used the treadmills at Cassell to stay in shape. But a little known fact: in the back of the car was a cooler … with a single beer. Just one. That single beer was Paul’s motivation, one that would always serve as his post-workout reward.

Here’s another story that probably could be told now. In November of 2000, Tech football coach Frank Beamer met with officials at North Carolina on a Sunday afternoon and was very close to taking the Tar Heels’ head coaching position. The following Monday morning, Beamer arrived at the football offices in Blacksburg, where fans were waiting for him outside of the Merryman Center holding signs that said, “Frank, don’t go!” and “Honk, if you want Coach Beamer to stay!” At the same time, Paul Torgersen was on his treadmill in Cassell getting in a workout. When he finished, Paul exited Cassell, pulled a U-turn and quickly walked back into the building.

Many assumed that Paul went back inside to meet with Beamer. After all, within minutes, Beamer announced he was staying at Tech.

The truth of the story: “I left my watch on the treadmill,” Paul told me later. “I just went back inside to get my watch.” That’s all that ever happened that day.

Since then, you’d see him behind the batting cage at softball practice, or sitting in his wheelchair at a Tech men’s or women’s basketball game. He loved being around student-athletes and cheering for his Hokies.

Personally, I’ll miss his visits to the radio booth. Every game, home or away, Paul would swing by the radio booth before each game to say hello to Mike Burnop and me and shake hands with our entire staff. Even in retirement, “Dr. T” would make it to the booth, as he did this past season.

I’ve grown close to his son, James, who is the facilities director at Cassell, and grandson Paul through our Sigma Chi connections. They’re wonderful people and a true Hokie family. Each is incredibly smart, overwhelmingly warm and equally quick-witted.

From Ballein: “One other story that showed Dr. T's wit was all the times he borrowed my truck. I told him he needed to get his own old pick-up. He said that’s not as important as knowing someone with an old pick-up.”

Each year, at the end of spring and fall practice, Virginia Tech football hands out its annual Paul Torgersen Award. It goes to the player who shows a commitment to hard work and great effort every time he takes the field. Marshawn Williams, Blake DeChristopher and John Graves have been among the many winners, all of whom are high-class kids and super successful. That award will take on even greater significance today (this year’s honoree will be named on April 25 at halftime of the Maroon-Orange Spring Game).

This man’s contributions to this campus and the history of Virginia Tech can’t be capsulized in a single story. The academic advancement under his leadership was unprecedented. The facilities on both the academic and athletics side exploded under his watch. The rankings, particularly in engineering, skyrocketed during his tenure.

But more than anything was his impact on people and his ability to communicate. That cerebral, quick wit will sure be missed.

And for generations of Hokies – kids who are here now and will be on campus in decades to come – please remember that Torgersen is not just the name of a bridge on campus. It’s not just the name of a hall with classrooms and labs.

It’s named in honor of a man whose impact goes far beyond Hokie stone and mortar. Burruss, Hahn, McComas, Pamplin, Lavery, Lane, Cassell, Merryman and now Torgersen … they’re all great buildings, and each was a great man who helped shaped the course of the school and Tech athletics.

But the next time you walk across the Torgersen Bridge or sit down in Torgersen Hall, make sure you feel comfortable … and feel like you’re at home. Because Paul certainly would.

William Rothpast