Norris and Wendy Mitchell at their home in Great Falls, Virginia. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Editor’s note, 1:45 p.m. Dec. 7: This story has been updated to include comments from a Tuesday news conference at Virginia Tech.

An aerospace executive and real estate investor who grew up in Carroll County without running water or electricity has pledged $35 million to Virginia Tech, the university’s largest ever donation from an alumnus.

The gift from Norris Mitchell, who graduated from Tech in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, will help pay for the construction of a new engineering building that will replace the aging Randolph Hall. Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Hall – named for Mitchell and his wife – will be the largest building on Tech’s Blacksburg campus.

“My mother was a schoolteacher and principal, and the value of education has been clear to me ever since I was a boy,” Norris Mitchell said in a written statement provided by the university. “Virginia Tech equipped me with the knowledge and skillset to have an extremely fulfilling career across several industries. I appreciate the university’s key role in my life. Wendy and I are happy to be able to make this gift to help Virginia Tech prepare tomorrow’s engineers.”

Norris Mitchell during his first year as a student at what is now the University of Lynchburg, which he attended for one year with help from a scholarship. Mitchell then transferred to Virginia Tech after securing a co-operative education appointment with the U.S. Navy. Photo courtesy of Norris Mitchell. 

Mitchell graduated from Sylvatus High School near Hillsville, then won a scholarship to what is now the University of Lynchburg. He transferred to Tech after a year, according to a biography provided by Tech. As a co-op student, he took classes each fall and spring and collected data on flight tests for the U.S. Navy the rest of the year.

After graduation, he moved to Long Beach, California, to work for Douglas Aircraft, which became McDonnell Douglas and eventually merged with Boeing. He later moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to the company’s Washington, D.C., office.

After leaving Douglas, he worked in weapon analysis systems for Research Analysis Corp. and then for Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC.

In 1968, he bought an apartment building with friends, which started his real estate career. He left the aerospace industry in 1974 and, with a partner, started a company called MG Apartments.

He was one of the founders of Virginia Commerce Bank, which later was acquired by United Bank. Among his real estate projects was the Olde Mill Golf Resort, near where he grew up in Carroll County.

Wendy Mitchell also enrolled at Tech but left during her first year because of a family emergency. She went on to a career in banking, rising from teller to a senior executive position.

The Mitchells, who live in Great Falls, also have endowed a professorship and a scholarship at Tech, and a robotics lab in Goodwin Hall is named for them.

The total cost of the Mitchell Hall project is estimated at $248 million, with most of the funding coming from the state, the university said. According to the university’s capital budget request to the state, the project could be ready for construction funding by summer 2023, depending on General Assembly approval.

Randolph Hall, which was built in two phases between 1952 and 1959, will be demolished. As planned, the new Mitchell Hall will be more than 70% larger than Randolph and will provide 284,000 square feet of classroom, lab and office space, the university said.

The engineering college is the university’s largest, with more than 12,000 students in 2020.

The growth has come in part as a result of the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program, a push to increase graduates in key computing fields. The initiative was heralded as a key component of the state’s successful bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters in Northern Virginia.

An architect’s rendition of Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. Image courtesy of Perkins & Will.

The plan to replace Randolph Hall has been in the works for more than two decades, Julia Ross, dean of the College of Engineering, said Monday.

The college has outgrown not only the physical size of Randolph Hall, she said, but also its design, which dates to the 1950s. Today’s engineering curriculum involves much more hands-on and project-based work, which needs different kinds of spaces than were envisioned nearly 70 years ago.

The 166,000-square-foot Randolph Hall – the university’s largest engineering building – was named for Lingan Strother Randolph, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tech from 1893 to 1918. For the last five years, he was dean of the engineering department.

According to the university’s capital budget request, the building hasn’t been updated to meet building code and accessibility requirements, and its building systems are outdated. A number of small-scale renovations have been done over the years, but no full-scale updates have occurred. 

As other campus construction projects were completed, the Randolph Hall replacement moved up the university’s list of priorities. Money is in place to complete the planning, Ross said, and then the university will need to go back to the General Assembly to request construction funding.

“Now we’re at that magic moment where we’re at the top of the queue, and we have this very generous donor come forward and make the gift to allow us to move forward as aggressively as we can and as quickly as we can,” she said.

“The Mitchell gift certainly puts us in a very strong position as we start talking to the state about that next step.”

Construction likely will take two to three years, she said; classrooms and labs will be moved to temporary quarters around campus and at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center while the work is done.

“This building really is going to be transformational for us in the college,” Ross said. “It’s not just the facility, it’s the facility plus what it’s going to allow us to do, and to do it right here in the center of campus.”

On Tuesday, during the official announcement of the donation, Mitchell said that he and his wife had been planning for some time to make a gift to Virginia Tech. “Our problem has always been, what should the purpose of that gift be?” he said.

Three factors led to their decision to designate their donation for a new engineering building, he said.

First, he said, he’s a strong believer in the value of an engineering education, which teaches students how to evaluate problems, how to think and how to determine what’s important.

Second, when they recently asked a group of upperclass and graduate engineering students whether updated facilities or scholarships were more important, their answer was clear, he said: “They all felt that improved facilities was what was needed.”

Finally, he said, they learned that about half of the qualified students who applied to the College of Engineering couldn’t be accepted.

Mitchell said they hope that their gift will speed the design and planning process for the new building. “Most importantly, we hope that it will accelerate the timing of funding needed to make it happen,” he said.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.