Dan Carson never had to stray too far from his roots to have a 40-year successful career as a dynamic electric power industry executive who has also served on countless state, community, and economic development boards, as well as a stint as a chair of a United Way campaign.
Carson is the 2011 Distinguished Alumnus for Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and will be honored at the May 14 college graduation ceremony.
“Dan is a long-time friend of the college, working on our Advisory Board as well as with his home department of civil and environmental engineering. He has orchestrated major industrial support for our Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science. His legacy with the electric power industry is well-deserved, and we are pleased he has accepted our offer of Distinguished Alumnus for 2011,” said Richard C. Benson, dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.
Born and raised in Pulaski, Va., some 30 minutes away from the Virginia Tech campus, his fate seemed predetermined. His father was an electrical engineering graduate of Virginia Tech, and a member of the corps of cadets. As a young boy, Carson says he quickly became a fan of his father’s alma mater, and trips to campus propelled the Blacksburg university to his number one choice for obtaining his college degree.
Seemingly, his only indecisions occurred around his 18th and 19th birthdays. He entertained thoughts of a biology degree, and maybe pursuing dental school. But with the influence of his father, and his parents’ engineering friends, he enrolled instead in architectural engineering in 1966, and was a member of the corps of cadets. A curve ball was thrown at him when Virginia Tech decided to eliminate its architectural engineering program after his freshman year, so he switched majors to civil engineering, he says. He took this time to face another fork in his road, and opted out of the corps, feeling the need to devote most of his time to his engineering studies.
During this time, his father died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1967. But the executor of the senior Carson’s estate, a close family friend, made sure that the remainder of Carson’s college education was paid, he says. The executor was also an employee of Appalachian Power, and the company “was in my blood, so to speak,” Carson said today. It provided him with summer jobs as a member of a surveying crew during the summers after his first two years in college.
When Carson was ready to graduate in 1970, Appalachian Power recruited him to its Roanoke office “with a generous offer,” he recalled. He started as one of the designers of the groundbreaking 765,000-volt transmission lines. “We built entire networks,” Carson said, “analogous to the interstate highway system.” Historical records show the first 765,000-volt interconnection occurred in 1971 between Appalachian Power’s parent company, American Electric Power and Commonwealth Edison.
As he moved rapidly into a senior role in the design of these extra high transmission lines that are now known for generally providing the lowest-cost method for carrying large quantities of electric energy, he started to think about his long-term career path. Looking at management possibilities, he decided to enroll in business classes at Lynchburg College on a part-time basis for five years. He described the time as “fairly intense,” especially since his second of three children was expected during his last year. His quietly ambitious nature landed him two rewards: his master of business administration in 1977 and the opportunity to work as an administrative assistant to the president of Appalachian Power in Roanoke.
After four years, the president, a mentor to Carson, recommended that Appalachian Power sponsor the budding executive for the master of science program in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his family in tow, he moved to Boston for 12 months, and secured his third degree that opened the doors to just about any management position with American Electric Power. He returned first to Roanoke as an assistant manager for six months, and then moved to Abingdon, Va., to become a division manager.
In 1992, Joseph Vipperman, a Virginia Tech electrical engineering graduate and now a retired vice president of American Electric Power, appointed Carson to a vice-president position, with responsibility for the company’s rates and contracts, accounting, and government affairs functions. The latter meant acting as a lobbyist, and Carson discovered the “government had a lot of influence on the well-being of the company, and the atmosphere was very competitive. As a lobbyist, and later as a manager of our lobbying corps, I understood that integrity and credibility were paramount. Without them, you were dead, so to speak, given that it’s nearly impossible to recover.”
Carson dedicated more than a fourth of his career with the power company to refinement of the regulatory framework for the electric utility industry, and he found these efforts “to be extraordinarily challenging and extraordinarily rewarding. The complexities of rate regulations are enormous. When you combine these with corporate strategies, I was pleased with our good record for achieving success.”
In 1996, his accomplishments led him to the position of American Electric Power President for Virginia and Tennessee, and he later returned to a similar position with Appalachian Power, based back in Roanoke, when a regional operating structure was reinstituted across the AEP system. In 2010, at the age of 62, he retired from his Roanoke office, but he still dabbles in some speaking opportunities with the power industry.
“I also play a lot more golf, and you would think I would be a better golfer after 50 years” of playing the sport, Carson jokes.
His charitable work has been and remains very important to him, serving as the 2009 annual campaign chair for the United Way of Roanoke Valley, and currently in a leadership role for the March of Dimes efforts. In 2010, he successfully proposed and brought to fruition a $1 million gift from AEP to Virginia Tech in the name of his friend and colleague, Vipperman.
Carson is also a past chairman of the board of directors of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, past chairman and director emeritus of the Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, and formerly served as board chair for the Roanoke Valley Business Council, the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority Advisory Board, and Roanoke Country Club.
He served in leadership capacities for the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the Virginia College Fund, the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education (Virginia FREE), in addition to a number of Roanoke-area organizations.
He is a member of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Committee of 100, a former member of the College Advisory Board, and in 2007 was inducted as a member of the Academy of Distinguished Alumni of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech.
Carson and his wife Sandy have three grown children and five granddaughters. He is an elder and long-time member of Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church of Roanoke.