In July of 1956, Virginia Tech became the first university in the United States to install a Nuclear Reactor Simulator. The simulator was installed as part of an atomic energy laboratory in Davidson Hall which was home to the Department of Physics at that time.
The laboratory also included a two-million-volt nuclear accelerator “built by staff members and graduate students,” and the “first university-owned graphite-moderated exponential reactor”, a sub-critical reactor made possible after the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) approved Virginia Tech to receive “a neutron source and 2,500 pounds of natural uranium metal”.
According to The Techgram following their interview with Dr. T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., the sub-critical reactor was scheduled to come online in July (only six months after the approval) “because college technicians have been at work for two months machining the 32,000 pounds of reactor graphite to be used in this new facility. The exponential pile will therefore be nearing completion and will be a tour feature when Virginia Tech is host to the Eighth Oak Ridge Regional Symposium on Atomic Energy and Science in its first Virginia appearance July 30-31.”
The symposium hosted by Virginia Tech with support from the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies (now the Oak Ridge Associated Universities – Virginia Tech has been a sponsoring institution since 1946) marked the opening of the lab. It included a short course in nuclear engineering physics, a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Atomic Energy (now the American Museum of Science & Energy), a film from General Electric “A is for Atom”, and various symposia on nuclear topics.
Two years after the opening of the lab, in 1958, Virginia Tech was awarded a grant from the Atomic Energy Commission that allowed the institution to purchase a 10-kilowatt Argonaut (Argonne Nuclear Assembly for University Training) reactor, a class of small nuclear research reactors based on the one developed at the Argonne National Laboratory. Unlike the sub-critical reactor that was already in operation, the Argonaut was a critical reactor meaning that the nuclear chain reaction would be self-sustaining. Virginia Tech was set to be the first university in the United States to install this new type of research reactor (according to Wikipedia, it’s possible the University of Florida beat Virginia Tech into operation by about six months).
This new reactor was installed in the New Physics Building (now Robeson Hall) which was about to begin construction. It first achieved criticality in mid-December 1959 and was officially placed into operation on January 6, 1960. The occasion was marked by a dedication ceremony featuring an address by Lieutenant Governor A.E.S. Stephens. Eventually, the reactor’s operating capacity was increased from 10-kilowatts to 100-kilowatts.
The atomic energy laboratories were expanded again in 1968 with the addition of a van de graaff accelerator. Four years later, on November 12, 1971, there was a “Nuclear Event” and Robeson Hall was evacuated. Our collections include a document called the “Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971”. Despite searching extensively, I have not been able to locate the actual report to which this is an appendix. The document we have includes 161 pages of transcribed interviews with people involved in the event. The document has not been digitized but I’ve scanned the first few pages which include a description of the event by Ronald J. Onega. The full report is available in Special Collections and University Archives (https://catalog.lib.vt.edu/cgi-bin/koha/opac-detail.pl?biblionumber=603347).
The scram was at 3:05, … Bill attempted to bring the sample up and all the alarms went off. … This was in Room 106 where the experiment was being carried on and the reactor console is in Room 108, so I ran over there to find out if it was serious, if it was real or to see what the situation was. The alarm went on to begin with, as well as I recall, and then it went off and then it came back on. … It was suggested that the sample be knocked loose. We could see that the sample didn’t return, so I think that Keith suggested that we try to dislodge the sample, which was the reasonable suggestion, it seemed to me at that particular time, to dislodge the sample by firing another one in. We did that and whenever we brought the sample back, it was radioactive. It was very hot and so when we discerned this I think Bob Stone went out to get a lead container to put the hot radioactive sample in, and we fired it in again as I recall. We fired this sample in twice in order to try to dislodge this and bring it back, and neither time did the original sample come back. The sample was then – the container to dislodge the original one was then taken out of the rabbit, put into the lead container, as well as the end cap for the rabbit. Bill Raymond went and got another lead container in case we could get the original sample back, and he also got another end cap for the rabbit which I think he got from Room 17 from Furr’s lab. We tried several times to bring the sample back but none of it was successful. Well, after we saw we weren’t going to get it loose, Bob Stone, Sy Meyers, Bill Raymond and myself took some survey meters and we were trying to find out exactly where this sample was hung up. The sample was hung up right at the edge of the reactor shield itself. It was in the rabbit tubing, right at the edge of the shield and whenever we discerned exactly where it was, we got a screwdriver and disconnected the tubing there, taped the end shut and also disconnected the tubing, the other end of this aluminum tube that the sample was in, and taped that end shut. I handed the tube to Bob Stone who was standing on the top of the hot cell and he lowered the tube, with the sample in the tube, down into the hot cell where it still remains. Both ends of the remaining tubing were also sealed shut. … I guess I neglected to say that sometime previous to this, the building had been evacuated. I don’t remember exactly what that time was. I estimate, Bill and I estimated, that the whole incident required, perhaps from the time the sample, from the time the building alarm went off, originally, until the sample was secured in the hot cell may have been around twenty (20) minutes. But that is as good as we can estimate. During this time I also had a pocket dosimeter on, and during the whole business I got 51 millirem of radiation. After the sample was secured, then we tried to discern exactly what the situation was and we saw that we did have a contamination problem. Furr’s lab was used to discern exactly whether fission fragments were scattered around or not, and it was discerned that they were.
“Appendix to Report of the Nuclear Event of November 12, 1971” 1971. Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Special Collections and University Archives, Virginia Tech.
Other than that incident, the atomic energy laboratories seem to have operated smoothly under both the Physics and Mechanical Engineering departments. The Virginia Tech Argonaut Reactor (VTAR) was remodeled in 1983 with new control panels. Three years later, in 1986, it was decommissioned. It was removed from Robeson Hall in 1989.
About a month ago, I had a chance to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers (Ms1973-004) for the first time. I don’t routinely transfer collections of faculty papers from storage just for my own entertainment, but I’ve been exploring collections weekly as part of a live Twitch broadcast, Archival Adventures, for nearly two years (the full playlist of past episodes is on YouTube and the live show airs Wednesdays on twitch.tv/VTULStudios).
I try to include materials from all of our collecting areas on the show and I thought a geology professor’s papers might contain some interesting things. While the collection did have some interesting geology-focused items (including an envelope of actual rock samples), the standout for me was Cooper’s writing. His speeches, lectures, and creative writing feature a strong narrative voice filled with personality and humor.
Note: There’s also a lot of misogyny and possibly some racism (I honestly haven’t had time to fully read Whisky for the Cat, included later in this post, but some skimming of it made me think there may be some Hispanic stereotyping happening.) Since these are historic documents, it’s not surprising to find these types of sentiments reflected as they were quite common at the time. Knowing about these problems in advance, one can look to see what else the documents have to offer beyond the problematic biases while still recognizing that the problems exist.
First, a bit about Byron Nelson Cooper. He was born in Plainfield, Indiana on August 19, 1912. We don’t have any information about his life before college but we do know that he attended a geology field camp run by Oberlin College before graduating from DePauw University in 1934. According to the Geological Society of America’s memorial of Cooper, this was his first introduction to Virginia geology. He then went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa with both of his theses focusing on the geology of southwestern Virginia. While researching the region, he established familial ties to the area through marriage to Elizabeth Doyne of Pulaski County. After his Ph.D., Cooper was an assistant professor of geology at Wichita University for five years (1937-1942). He then served as associate geologist of the Virginia Geological Survey for four years before joining Virginia Polytechnic Institute as the head of the Department of Geological Sciences in 1946. As head, Cooper led a two-person department to become nationally recognized. He also consulted for business, industry, and local governments throughout Virginia on geological matters, particularly issues relating to water supply. He died on March 26, 1971, suffering a heart attack in his office on campus at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Untitled Speech, 1964
Reading the text of his lectures, speeches, and other writings, it’s not hard to see how his leadership inspired excellence from the Department of Geology. Cooper is an excellent writer, crafting persuasive phrases that retain the audience’s interest. In Box 6 of his papers, there is an untitled speech from mid-December of 1964. The speech is clearly meant to inspire students in the program to work toward their maximum potential. (The last page seems to be an excerpt from another speech regarding campus unrest and student solidarity which is also quite interesting.)
I don’t know what Cooper’s voice sounded like, but I can almost hear him speaking with conviction the lines he has written.
If you live for tomorrow with the objective of
making today’s dreams come true tomorrow, you
begin to pace yourself and to deny yourself small
rewards in favor of engineering bigger things. In
a matter of months one can gain a pretty accurate
assessment of his personal power and of his capacity for
work, and time enables one to not only
play the game but to keep his own side.
Every quarter or semester in a university is
a test of planning ahead. You learn to work,
you learn to meet deadlines, you learn to avoid the pitfalls
of goofing off. You learn how to pilot yourself to avoid
most of the bumps. Each setback only stiffens the determination
to win in the end. The daily lesson is the mind’s food, unless
you feed the mind it doesn’t grow.
Some silly students believe you learn in college
what you have to know + then you go out + use your
knowledge. This just is not so. You leave here with a
bullied and bruised head + many facts though they
be filed in your mind will never be recalled. You
do leave even if its by flunking out –
with an enlarged view – of the world + of yourself.
The great men of history have possessed a sense
of their histories being even as they lived. If
you tie your wagon to a star + work to reach the
goal you have set – you have given your life meaning
but perspective and some historicity – and in the
process if you do so I assure you that you will have
one helluva good time in the best sense of that
Really, this entire speech is quite inspiring (if one can get past the students being constantly referred to as men). If offers some great perspective on what is important in the educational experience and acknowledges the fact that not all learning on campus comes from the details learned in the classroom. You can find a full transcription of the speech on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.
How to Catch a Genius, undated, likely 1957
While exploring the finding aid, two other pieces of writing caught my attention thanks to their titles. The first is How to Catch a Genius, a play in two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. It’s a comedy about a professor (Dr. Claude Sidney Magnabrayne) coming to Virginia Tech for an on-site interview and the unacknowledged and vitally important role that the women of the university community have in persuading potential professors to accept offers of employment despite the clueless behavior of their husbands (Dr. George A. Blurt being an example). Again, this piece is misogynistic in its portrayal of women. It’s also full of stereotypes including ones about politics, brainy-but-clueless academics, stressed-out over-drinkers, and many more. While the play is undated, its portrayal of women and the stereotypes seem to fit the 1950s or 1960s. The play itself gives us a clue about the date being portrayed (if not the date it was created). At the beginning of Act I, there is a bit about a phone number:
1 opens, we find Sid leafing the pages in the local phone book for the
Covington, Kentucky Area Code. So he dials 606—-then 5-5-5--
then 1-2-1-2. (For those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing, what
Sid is trying to do is find out his own phone number which was changed
recently—as a matter of fact about 26 months ago.)
The important part in dating the item is the parenthetical addresed to “those unfamiliar with Long Distance dialing” and the notation that Magnabrayne’s phone number changed 26 months earlier. From the context of the play, it’s clear that we’re mid-20th century. According to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA), the numbering plan we’re familiar with today (1-digit country code, 3-digit Numbering Plan Area code, 7-digit local number) was developed by AT&T in 1947 to allow consumers to dial long-distance calls without operator assistance. The plan began implementation in 1951. The NANPA database also tells us that area code 606 was put into service on January 1, 1955. This tells us that the play is set around March of 1957, 26 months after Magnabrayne’s phone number would have changed from something like “Covington-5000” to the 606 number given in the play. Given the 1957 setting of the play (which is probably also near in time to when the play was written), it’s not at all surprising to see the misogyny and stereotypes present in this piece.
The play itself is a short humorous play that would have been entertaining for faculty since it makes fun of a common experience. We don’t know why the play was written, whether for entertainment or some other purpose. Perhaps it was intended as a fun training tool to help orient faculty to the recruitment process for new faculty. I do find it interesting that the play is centered around recruiting a forensics professor. Forensics in this case is referring to public speaking rather than scientific analysis of physical evidence. Given Cooper’s skill with turning a phrase, this evidence of his interest in the field of forensics stood out to me. I think my favorite part of the play comes in the epilogue when Cooper basically suggests that recruiting Magnabrayne was ultimately all Myrtle Blurt’s doing:
Who can say that Mrs. Blurt may not have rendered the telling
act of consummate kindness in driving Sid Magnabrayne back to his
motel after the power went off. You know she just could have called
the Vice President and asked him to cut the power off and thereby
end those awful Beethoven symphonies. Sort of funny the way that
power came on just as she drove her guest up to the motel. He could
have stalked out of the house and headed back for Covington if that power
had not gone off during the playing of the redundant Sixth. Or perhaps
something she said about Blacksburg just convinced Sid Magnabrayne
that B-burg was the place for his Tillie and their six geniuses.
Remember, Sid Magnabrayne just could be President here some day,
and if my surmises are true, wouldn’t Myrtle Blurt have a reason to smile
knowing that she helped get old Sid Magnabrayne to sign.
The play, with a full transcription, is available on Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives Online.
Whiskey for the Cat, undated, likely 1960s
The last item I wanted to share today caught my eye because of the title. On the finding aid, it just said Box 6, Folder 28: “Whiskey for the Cat” n.d. (no date). How could I ever resist taking a look to see what this item was? What I found is 85 handwritten pages of what appears to be the first chapter of a novel. While the document is undated, I suspect it is set in (and likely written during) the 1960s based on a sentence on page 84: “In the brief span of the seventh decade of the twentieth century man suddenly begins to understand himself and the world in which he lives.”
As with the play, this story is set on a university campus. This time, it’s set at a fictional university in the midwest. While the book chapter is clearly in a crime or detective fiction genre, I notice what seem to me to be small bits of Cooper’s signature humor that poke through here and there. For example, the fictional university is named Enneagh University (pronounced Any University). Again, this work of fiction seems like it would most appeal to someone who had lived and worked at a university, but it’s also well written. Cooper crafts scenes well, providing just the right amount of detail for the reader to be able to imagine the scene without becoming bogged down in details. It does have some outdated language usage such as referring to the faculty and staff of a university as the “indigenous population” of a university town. Today, the term Indigenous peoples is understood to refer to the earliest known inhabitants of a geographic area and would correctly be applied to one of the many Mississippian peoples who inhabited the region referenced in the text.
Most American universities go into some
level of hibernation during the summer and anyone
who has lived through a summer in the Middle Mississippi Valley
can readily understand why summer is the idling
period of the university year. It is too hot
and sultry in the midwest during the summer for
heavy thinking. The indigenous population in a
university community – the professors and
ancillary personnel who keep the faculty in line
have had it after nine months of intensive
association with students and they need time to
regain a modicum of patience and compassion to
fortify them for the next year. The ancillary
personnel need uninterrupted time during the hot months
to clean up the accumulation of junk, paper, the
cigarette butts with their indestructible cork tips, and the
decorative graffiti deposited on desk tops, toilet stalls,
dormitory rooms, and classroom walls has to
be cleaned off or painted over. The university admini-
stration needs the summer to process its final admis-
sions of new students conduct the on-campus visitations of bewildered
parents who want to examine the environment into which
their John’s and Mary’s will move as unprepared children
(or so the parents think).
Given the length of this item, I haven’t yet had time to read it in its entirety; however, skimming through, it seems that in this first chapter (I have not noticed any point where a Chapter II begins) a university professor and his student endeavor to solve a mystery involving marijuana, organized crime, and murder on a typical American midwestern college campus. There are again stereotypes present in the work, with the professor and student being likened to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. There’s also possibly some racism present in the stereotypes with two criminal characters being Jose Rivera and Steuben Kessel (Kessel being noted in the text as “an alien whose work permit had run out”). But, I get the impression that this story is less blatantly misogynistic than the other works since I didn’t notice it in the portions I have read. A full transcription of this 85 page document is not yet available, but it will be on Special Collections and University Archives Online.
Looking over these three items, I notice a consistent authorial voice while also noting that Cooper can work in different genres and fit into them well. He seems equally comfortable writing a rousing inspirational speech, a situation comedy script, and a detective novel. They each fit their genre well, while still incorporating elements that can be seen in the others. These are just three folders from six boxes of material and I haven’t had time to search thoroughly to find what other stories might be in the collection, but I do hope I can find the time someday because I was very entertained by the inspiration, comedy, and drama I found in the papers of the former head of the Department of Geology.
If you’d like to look through the Byron Nelson Cooper Papers in person, you are welcome to visit us on the first floor of Newman Library. Please note, this collection is housed in off-site storage and you should contact us in advance to request materials be brought to the library for your use.
Displayed on Newman Library’s 2nd floor now through April 22 during the library’s open hours, “The Words of Children” exhibit highlights items that Virginia Tech received following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. It features children’s letters, drawings, condolence books, and objects from elementary, middle, and high school students from around the world. The more than 150 items are filled with messages of love, hope, and peace, many of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
A complimentary digital exhibit includes the letters and drawings on display as well as memories of those affected by April 16th collected in the April 16, 2007, Oral History Collection and from VT Stories. The digital exhibit is available at https://tinyurl.com/April162022Exhibit.
The exhibit is one of many events honoring the 23 Hokies we lost 15 years ago. Visit the Remembrance website at https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for more information.
We continue to remember the 32 victims:
Ross A. Alameddine Christopher James Bishop Brian R. Bluhm Ryan Christopher Clark Austin Michelle Cloyd Jocelyne Couture-Nowak Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva Kevin P. Granata Matthew Gregory Gwaltney Caitlin Millar Hammaren Jeremy Michael Herbstritt Rachael Elizabeth Hill Emily Jane Hilscher Jarrett Lee Lane Matthew Joseph La Porte Henry J. Lee
Liviu Librescu G.V. Loganathan Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan Lauren Ashley McCain Daniel Patrick O’Neil Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz Minal Hiralal Panchal Erin Nicole Peterson Michael Steven Pohle, Jr. Julia Kathleen Pryde Mary Karen Read Reema Joseph Samaha Waleed Mohamed Shaalan Leslie Geraldine Sherman Maxine Shelly Turner Nicole Regina White
Addressing difficult topics can be stressful and cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleep loss, and even concerns about safety. If you or a loved one needs help, visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/ for available resources.
After a year and a half without student workers onsite due to the pandemic, SCUA finally has a number of students in the department working on a variety of projects! I’m fortunate right now to supervise a couple of them on a number of processing projects in our different collecting areas, including the University Archives, Local/Regional History and Appalachian South, and the American Civil War, among others.
The Records of the Virginia Tech Dean of Students, Henry J. Holtzclaw, RG 8/2a, pertain to the work of Holtzclaw, who was the first person to serve as Dean of Students (also called Dean of Men) at VPI from 1923 to 1924. The collection is predominantly of correspondence between Holtzclaw and others at the university, such as President Julian Burruss, the Athletics Director C.P. Miles, and many other well known names from this time period.
The collection shows the intricacy and detail to which the Dean was involved in the everyday operations of the university. Holtzclaw helped develop the timetable and schedule of classes as well as the annual catalog. He oversaw the students’ attendance, handling requests for resigning from the university and their discipline in relation to hazing, poor grades, and rules violations. Dean Holtzclaw was also involved with the student organizations. One item of particular interest relates an incident when the Corps of Cadets was called to help put out a fire in town.
The Theodore Winthrop Papers, Ms2021-004, contains items by and about Winthrop, who has the distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the American Civil War. Winthrop served on the staff of General Benjamin Butler, when he was killed at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10, 1861.
While only one item, the Virginia Tax Receipt, Ms2021-009, is a unique document from 1859 as it identifies a freedman’s tax payments for Peter Logan of Chesterfield, Virginia. Looking through the records on Ancestry.com, Peter Logan (ca. 1810-1880) is a Black shoemaker from Chesterfield County, Virginia.
The Blacksburg Lions Club Records, Ms2021-022, document the work of the local Lions Club, primarily their charitable work with eye and ear diseases. We also received a number of music books, mostly men’s choral music and a couple Lions Club books, which will be added to the Rare Book Collection.
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host substantial physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit We Are Better Than We Think: Selections from the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the items Virginia Tech received following the events of April 16th. It features artifacts, children’s letters, poems, and more with messages of love, hope, and peace, most of which have not been displayed for exhibition before.
The title piece of the exhibit, “We Are Better Than We Think” by Eric W. Schuttler (pictured above) is on display in Newman Library near the 2nd floor entrance, April 12 thru April 23 during the library’s open hours. (No other items are on display.)
For more information on the university’s remembrance events, including the virtual 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance, please visit https://www.weremember.vt.edu/.
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit Unknown Origins: Anonymous gifts in the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the messages Virginia Tech received from unknown individuals, organizations, or places following the events of April 16, 2007. It features anonymous donations and gifts of unknown origin, paying homage to those who want to be part of the mourning and recovery process but do not necessarily want to be known.
Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
We are very pleased to announce that our department has taken on a new addition to our name: Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA, for short). The University Archives have always been a meaningful part of our department, and this name change recognizes its significance in a more visible way.
This is just a recent change in a long line of them in SCUA’s nearly 50 year history. Virginia Tech has been collecting manuscript collections, university archives, rare books, artwork, and historical maps and photographs since the early days of its history, and many of those items constitute the foundations of our department’s collections. However, before SCUA’s establishment, the activities we engage in today were all separate. For example, the rare books were kept in locked cages serviced by the Reference Department, and an Archives section was created in 1968/1969 with Mary Larimer as archivist.
In 1970, the new Library Director Gerald A. Rudolph formally established Special Collections, combining the rare books, manuscripts, university archives, and historical photographs and maps into one department. The first head of Special Collections was the aforementioned Mary Larimer. During her tenure, she expanded the southwest Virginia collections, such as the acquisition of the J. Hoge Tyler Family Collection, Ms1967-002; began the science and technology collecting area, including the John W. Landis Papers, Ms1969-001; and acquired a number of American literary works through the estate of professor Dayton M. Koehler, including both the Dayton M. Koehler Papers, Ms1971-002 and his rare book collection. The University Archives also expanded, with President Hahn sending all presidential records from before 1960 to the department and encouraging the members of the Board of Visitors to donate their papers in 1973.
Stephen Zietz was the third director of Special Collections from 1993 to 1995, and he spearheaded the development of the Friends of the University Libraries, an advisory board to help build collections and funding. During his tenure, Special Collections began collaborating with other departments on campus to digitize some of its collections and launched its website. The Elden E. “Josh” Billings Collection of over 4,000 volumes on the American Civil War was cataloged, and processing the university presidents, such as President Hahn’s 100+ box collection, and vice presidents became a priority. The University Archives also began actively collecting materials related to underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups at the university, such as the Black Women at Virginia Tech Oral History Project, Ms1995-026.
The Director of Scholarly Communication, Gail McMillan took on the additional role as the fourth director of Special Collections in 1995. Both departments were under the aegis of Digital Library and Archives (DLA), starting in 2000 with McMillan as DLA director. From 2001 through 2003, Jennifer Gunter King served as the fifth head of Special Collections, but following her departure, McMillan once again became de facto head in her role as director of DLA.
While part of DLA, Special Collections began digitizing materials in bulk, including the creation of ImageBase and the Bugle yearbooks for online access of these materials. McMillan was also influential in the development of the history of food and drink collecting area, acquiring the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection in 2000 and the Ann Hertzler Children’s Cookbook and Nutrition Literature Collection & Endowment Fund in 2006. That same year, the department also expanded with a newly renovated reading room.
Following an outside consultant’s report in 2006, Dean Eileen Hitchingham decided to split Special Collections and DLA into separate departments. In 2007, the seventh and current director Aaron D. Purcell was hired. Major developments in the department over the past few years have included the mass creation of finding aids in Virginia Heritage, the first redesign of the department website in 20 years, the active collection of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech and in Blacksburg, expansion of the processing of the University Archives records and publications, and of course, the new and improved name Special Collections and University Archives.
In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.
For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.
At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.
From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.
With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.
As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.
You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.
After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.
You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].
About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:
I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)
Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.
The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.
Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:
The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?
Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.
But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.
That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”
Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”
At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:
Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.
“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.
“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.
“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.
“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”
According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.
“Holding the Light,” is one of two exhibits that will be displayed on the second floor commons in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library as the university observes its 2019 Day of Remembrance.
The exhibit, on display Thursday, April 8 through Tuesday April 18, is a collaboration between the University Libraries and Student Engagement and Campus Life and honors those lost and injured on April 16, 2007. It features items of condolence from around the nation and world.
Among the artifacts on display will be an eight-pointed star quilt from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, large banners signed by people in Seoul, South Korea, a work of calligraphy from Japan based on the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and a painting by students at Rappahannock County High School. The exhibit will also include items from the State University of New York Morrisville, Florida State University, Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, Hillel, Living Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the New River Valley.
A display in the windows of Special Collections on the 1st floor of Newman Library will also reflect the “Holding the Light” theme. Most of the items on display were either left at the Drillfield memorial in the aftermath of April 16th or from vigils at other places in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.
The second exhibit, “A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement,” will feature photographs of each of the 32 victims and a selection of books that reflect their individual disciplines and interests.
In addition to these two exhibits, a small garden space for quiet reflection outside of Squires Student Center’s Old Dominion Ballroom will be available to the community. The garden features a large inscribed rock received from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, and stones from previous April 16 Perspective Gallery Exhibitions. Itawamba Community College planted a dogwood tree in honor of the victims, and this garden also includes a dogwood tree.