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Once a Lawn Mower, a Self-made Billionaire Makes a Lasting Gift to Virginia Tech

A self-made billionaire has announced a gift of $2 million to Virginia Tech, even though he did not complete his graduation from that college of engineering. //

His philanthropy is the result of a long-term relationship with Paul and Dot Torgersen of Blacksburg, Va. When he was a youngster, he used to mow the Torgersen's lawn for some spending money. Today, that young man is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Google, and according to some accounts, a possible candidate for Time Magazine's next Person of the Year. His name is Eric E. Schmidt.

Last spring, Paul Torgersen, president of Virginia Tech from 1993 until 2000 and dean of its College of Engineering from 1970 to 1990, visited Schmidt in California, the home of Google. Over breakfast they discussed the possibility of Schmidt funding an endowed dean’s chair that would enhance the already attractive leadership position of Virginia Tech's highly ranked College of Engineering.

When Torgersen made the proposal, he suggested to his former neighbor that the gift be named the Eric Schmidt Dean's Chair in Engineering at Virginia Tech. Recently, Eric and his wife, Wendy, agreed to fund this proposal, the largest philanthropic gift they have made to date.

But they had a caveat unknown to Torgersen. When the legal document was completed, the Schmidts request was to name the chair the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean's Chair in Engineering.

Richard Benson, the current Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech, informed the Torgersen of this change at the request of the Schmidts.

'I was stunned. I still am,' Torgersen said. 'Dot and I have had some nice things happen to us over the past 52 years, but I do believe this is one of the nicest. The chair is a capstone both for the college and Dot and myself.'

In an email to Torgersen after the surprise twist, Schmidt wrote, 'This seemed to be the least Wendy and I could do to honor your and Dot's commitment to a great university VPI. Thanks for being so close to us for so long.'

The Torgersen-Schmidt friendship started in the late 1960s. A few years after the Torgersens moved to Palmer Drive in Blacksburg in 1969, their next-door neighbors became Wilson and Ellie Schmidt. At the time, Wilson Schmidt was the head of the University's Department of Economics.

'Our families were raised next door to each other. Our children overlap in age. Wilson and I borrowed all sorts of tools from each other. We shared a chain saw. Our three children were the only individuals from Blacksburg to attend Eric's wedding in New Jersey.' Torgersen recalled.

While Torgersen was president of Virginia Tech, he invited Eric Schmidt to return to campus to be the 1999 commencement speaker. At that time, Schmidt was the chairman and CEO of Novell Inc. After that visit, Schmidt funded a professorship in economics in his late father’s name.

Most recently, the Torgersens attended with Schmidt and his mother, Ellie, the induction of new members into the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Schmidt was one of the inductees, recognized by the NAE for his work on 'the development of strategies for the world's most successful Internet search engine company.'

Schmidt's previous employment includes chief technology officer and CEO at Sun Microsystems Inc., where he led the development of Java, Sun’s platform independent programming technology.

According to University Development, an endowed deanship is the single most prestigious position in a school or college. Those appointed to the position of dean are charged with maintaining and enhancing the quality of the school or college they head. They are the leaders responsible for creating a vision for the school or college and for developing programs to implement and embody that vision.

Endowment gifts for school or college deanships provide discretionary funds that enable deans to build a set of outstanding departments and programs that will rank among the best of their kind.

The Endowed Dean's Chair in Engineering is the first of its kind at Virginia Tech.

Benson, said, 'I am honored in two ways. The idea that Eric Schmidt would think so much of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, when he did not obtain his degree here, is overwhelming. Mr. Schmidt, one of today's great leaders of technology, has provided me with an opportunity few deans of engineering in the United States have. I have now the additional resources to fulfill my vision for a greater national prominence and impact of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

'Second, it is a huge honor to hold the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean's Chair in Engineering. One of the pieces of art that hangs in the College is a reprint from Virginia Business magazine, dated 1990. The title is 'The House that Torgersen Built.' The article credits Paul's 20-year tenure as Virginia Tech's Dean of Engineering as 'elevating the college to the upper echelons of the slide rule set.' To hold a chair in the name of Paul and Dorothea Torgersen is inspiring beyond measure. I am sure that I speak for all future 'Torgersen Deans' in saying that our goal will be to live up to the standards of excellence set by 'Dean Torgersen.''

Schmidt, who also teaches Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, a popular course at Stanford University, is an electrical engineering graduate of Princeton University, an institution recommended to him by Torgersen. Afterwards, he earned his master's and Ph.D. from the University of California – Berkeley.


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