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Class of 1956 and staff member memorialize university's first student


   

William Addison Caldwell statue William Addison Caldwell statue

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 18, 2006 – When William Addison Caldwell arrived in Blacksburg on Oct. 1, 1872, after a long hike from Sinking Creek in Craig County, Va., he likely never envisioned the historic significance of his journey.

But the 16-year-old Caldwell--"Add" as he was known--did indeed make history by becoming the first student to enroll in the new Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (V.A.M.C), forerunner of today's Virginia Tech and the commonwealth's first land-grant institution.

Caldwell's reward for his journey was a state scholarship and a five-member faculty happy to see him and hoping for the arrival of some semblance of a student body so the real work of the institution could begin. Some 132 students were ultimately enrolled during the first year of the young college's existence, but because Caldwell took four years to complete the three-year program, he was not among the first graduates.

Nevertheless, his place in Virginia Tech history had been assured when he first entered the door of the Prestin and Olin Building on that early autumn day in 1872, and the significance of his achievement is still marked by an annual Caldwell March conducted by the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets that replicates a portion of Caldwell's early trek to the Backsburg campus.

And on Friday, Oct. 20, 2006--some 134 years to the month after Caldwell departed Craig County en route to Blacksburg--the Virginia Tech Class of 1956 will commemorate his historic role in a tangible and permanent way by dedicating, on the Blacksburg campus not far from where his journey ended, a bronzed sculpture in the likeness of the young student.

Created by Larry Bechtel, Virginia Tech's recycling coordinator and a nearly lifelong practitioner of the art of sculpting, the statue will be dedicated that day at 3:15 p.m. on a landscaped plot behind Brodie Hall.

Bechtel, who attended graduate school at Virginia Tech and was an instructor in the English department prior to implementing the university's recycling program, spent months researching his subject and the attire of the period, creating the basic form in clay, modeling a lifesize figure, and finally having the model, once it was approved by the Class of 1956 committee, cast in bronze. "I had Will Caldwell, the great-great-great nephew of Addison, sit for me to help model a persuasive facial portrait of Add," Bechtel said. "And Eric Johnson, a Virginia Tech graduate student in Theatre Arts, was the model that posed for me in period costume. Addison wasn’t very big—probably five foot, six inches or five foot, seven inches and 115-120 pounds, so Eric was just about the right size.”

The resulting sculpture is a true-to-life, faithfully and painstakingly executed representation of Caldwell in mid-stride as he approaches the completion of his long hike.

“I loved doing this sculpture,” added Bechtel. “For me, it’s the very symbol of a university. This young farm boy left his home place and came over the mountains seeking a place of understanding and knowledge. In an way, we’re all like Addison.”

The Caldwell statue is just one of many ways the highly devoted Class of 1956 has maintained allegiance to its alma mater. This same group of participating alumni also sponsored construction of a conference room in the new Alumni Center; supported renovations to Solitude, the university's oldest building; provided continuous support to Newman Library; and helped to fund both an Honors Scholarship and a Corps of Cadets scholarship.

"The Class of '56 has long been loyal in supporting Virginia Tech," said Tom Tillar, vice president for alumni relations. "The Addison Caldwell statue, memorializing this important point in the university's long history, is just the latest example of the impact Virginia Tech has, not only on individuals, but on entire classes that value their experiences here long after they have left the classroom."