Blake R. Van Leer

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Blake R. Van Leer
President of the Georgia Institute of Technology
In office
Preceded byMarion L. Brittain
Succeeded byEdwin D. Harrison
Dean of Engineering University of Florida
In office
Dean of Engineering North Carolina State University
In office
Berkeley City Council
In office
Personal details
BornAugust 16, 1893
Mangum, Oklahoma
DiedJanuary 23, 1956(1956-01-23) (aged 62)
Atlanta, Georgia
Alma materPurdue University
University of Caen Normandy
University of California, Berkeley
OccupationUniversity president
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Years of service1917–1953
UnitCorps of Engineers
Battles/warsWorld War I
World War II
AwardsCroix de Guerre

Blake Ragsdale Van Leer (August 16, 1893 – January 23, 1956) was an engineer and university professor who served as the fifth president of Georgia Institute of Technology from 1944 until his death in 1956.

Early life and education[edit]

Van Leer was born in Mangum, Oklahoma to Maurice Langhorne Van Leer and Mary McKee Tarleton.[1] After his father's death in 1897 he grew up in an all-girls Masonic orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas from the age of 3.[2] At an early age he decided he wanted to be an engineer.[3] He graduated with honors from Purdue University in 1915 with a degree in electrical engineering and later an M.S. in mechanical engineering while working at the University of California, Berkeley in 1920. Van Leer also studied at the University of Caen in France and the University of Munich.[4][5] He was awarded two doctorates, one from Washington & Jefferson College and the other from Purdue.[6] In 1924 he married Ella Lillian Wall in Berkeley, California.[1]

Dean and officer[edit]

Van Leer was an U.S. Army officer and began his career as an engineer. During World War I, he led engineering teams who built bridges in front of the main infantry to cross rivers and fought in 5 different battles. On one occasion his unit held an island for two days against enemy forces and several members of his unit were killed in action.[7] From 1932 to 1937, Van Leer was a dean at the University of Florida.[8] During the Great Depression along side educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, he lobbied for federal funding for Florida institutions.[9] In 1937 he became the dean of the School of Engineering at NC State University. During his tenure at both universities, numerous departments were established, and the first graduate engineering programs were created.[10][11] While at NC State he advocated for women and encouraged many to pursue engineering degrees. The first 5 women would enroll in NC State's engineering programs and become the first to graduate in 1941. One of his students was Katharine Stinson, co-founder of Society of Women Engineers and the FAA's first female engineer.[12][13] While here, he was also initiated as an honorary of the NCSU chapter of Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity.[14] Around 1940, with the permission of Dean Harrelson, Van Leer gave half his time to the North Carolina Office for Defense orders. He resigned his post as dean in 1942 to take military leave.[15] During the war, he served as a U.S. Army officer (attaining the rank of colonel), after which he returned to lead the school.[1] In 1945 Blake was appointed to the Board of the United States Naval Academy by President Harry S. Truman and helped expand its curriculum.[16]

Georgia Tech[edit]

After World War II Van Leer returned to become the president of Georgia Tech. During his tenure the school admitted women for the first time.[17][18] He began allowing women to enroll in night school, and after a failed vote to allow women into Georgia Tech, he tried again and succeeded by split decision.[19] Faculty member Robert B. Wallace was quoted "as saying Van Leer was a fighter who battled to the bitter end for what he believed," a trait he would show very clearly in late 1955.[20] The first step towards integration was made during support for the 1956 Sugar Bowl game. During his time in office Georgia Tech also became the largest engineering school in the South and the third largest in the US and Canada.[17][18] Van Leer also had a focus on making Atlanta the "MIT of the South." Throughout his career he lobbied major companies like Lockheed Corporation to expand to Atlanta.[21] In 1946 Van Leer was appointed as a member to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization who had a focus to work against racism through influential statements on race.[22][23]

Main entrance to the Van Leer Building on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Van Leer might be best known for events centered around the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Known for giving frequent commencement speeches at the all-Black Morris Brown College, he stood up to Georgia governor Marvin Griffin's demand to bar Bobby Grier from participating in the 1956 Sugar Bowl game between Georgia Tech and Grier's University of Pittsburgh.[24] Leading up to the game, Griffin sent numerous telegrams to Tech's Board of Regents and the press saying Georgia should not engage in racially integrated events which had Blacks either as participants or in the stands. The governor also called on the "Tech boys" to be punished. Coach Bobby Dodd and students left the whole affair up to Van Leer to battle Griffin and the Board of Regents.[25] Van Leer was summoned by the Regents who commended Griffin for his stand on segregation.[26]

Van Leer was publicly quoted:

Either we’re going to the Sugar Bowl or you can find yourself another damn president of Georgia Tech.

Van Leer stuck to his statement, even receiving a standing ovation in the faculty senate, and the game went on as planned. Four years after his death in January 1956, an overwhelming majority of the 2,741 students present voted to endorse the integration of qualified applicants, regardless of race.[27][28][18] Van Leer advocated women get into engineering later in his career as well.[29] Today the building that houses Tech's school of Electrical and Computer Engineering bears his name.[30][31]

Van Leer also founded Southern Polytechnic State University while president of Georgia Tech. The university merged into Kennesaw State University in 2015.[32]

Van Leer died of a heart attack on January 24, 1956, at the Atlanta Veterans Hospital.[33]

Personal life[edit]

Van Leer was a descendant of the Van Leer Family. His direct ancestor Samuel Van Leer was an American Revolutionary War officer. His other ancestor is a Founding Father General Anthony Wayne who is the namesake for Bruce Wayne.[34][35]

All of Van Leer's children would graduate as engineers. Van Leer's daughter Maryly V. Peck also became a college president and women's rights advocate after earning her masters and Doctorate in engineering.[36] After earning a masters and multiple engineering degrees, his son Blake Wayne Van Leer also became a high-ranked military officer for the United States Navy.[37] His youngest son Samuel Van Leer graduated from Georgia Tech with two engineering degrees, later a masters and lead several private schools.[38] Sam was quoted stating his dad "could imagine a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech being anyone, he did not concern himself with race or gender, he was always progressive."[39]


The building that houses Georgia Tech's school of Electrical and Computer Engineering bears his name.[40] In 1964, the Blake R Van Leer Scholarship was named after him, it's for out of state students attending Georgia Tech.[41] The Van Leer society at NC State University is named after him.[42] Artist Julian Hoke Harris sculpted a plaque to honor his stance against Governor Griffin.[43] In 2022 a film was announced about the 1956 Sugar Bowl and it featuring him as a main character.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Biography of Van Leer Family". Georgia Tech Library. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  2. ^ "Beyond the Chain Link Lay the Kingdom of the Mighty Mites". Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  3. ^ "Oral-History:Maryly Van Leer Peck". ETHW. 10 June 2016.
  4. ^ "Campusonalities". The Georgia Tech Alumnus (January–February): 9. 1951. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  5. ^ United States. Congress. House. Committee on Armed Services (1947). Full Committee Hearings on Universal Military Training. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 4333.
  6. ^ "Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Vol. 29, No. 03 1951 by Georgia Tech Alumni Association - Issuu". 2 July 2013.
  7. ^ Full Committee Hearings on Universal Military Training. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1947.
  8. ^ "History of the ECE Department: 1930–1939". Archived from the original on 2010-06-03. Retrieved 2009-06-11.
  9. ^ "Who Was Mary Jane McLeod Bethune?". History Hit.
  10. ^ "Guide to the North Carolina State University College of Engineering Annual Reports, 1889-2005 UA 105.002 -- NCSU Special Collections". 25 April 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-04-25.
  11. ^ "Van Leer, Blake Ragsdale, 1893-". NC State University Libraries. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  12. ^ "Defense demands women engineers". thejohnsonian. 1942-03-20.
  13. ^ "Guide to the North Carolina State University College of Engineering Annual Reports". NCSU. Archived from the original on 2014-04-25. Retrieved 2009-06-11.
  14. ^ Georgia Tech's Auditorium Gymnasium (1944). "Col. Van Leer and Dr. Brittain Elected by Regent Board – Cont'd". The Georgia Tech Alumnus. March–April: 66.
  15. ^ "Guide to the North Carolina State University College of Engineering Annual Reports". Retrieved 2009-06-11.
  16. ^ "Naval Academy visitor board" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 June 2022. Retrieved June 7, 2015.
  17. ^ a b "Women: 30 Years at Tech". Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Vol. 58, no. 1. Georgia Tech Alumni Association. 1982. pp. 9–13.
  18. ^ a b c McMath, p.282
  19. ^ The Campus History Series. Georgia Tech. 2018. p. 9. ISBN 9781467129602.
  20. ^ "Rearview Revisited: Segregation and the Sugar Bowl". 14 November 2019.
  21. ^ Hair, William I. (1985). "Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech, 1885–1985". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. 69 (4): 509–517. JSTOR 40581436. Retrieved 2020-11-29.
  22. ^ "UNESCO. (1950). Statement by experts on race problems. Paris, 20 July 1950. UNESCO/SS/1. UNESDOC database" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 April 2012. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
  23. ^ Summary Minutes of Meeting. United States National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1956.
  24. ^ "Film to Focus on Georgia Tech, fight against segregation at 1956 Sugar Bowl". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 5 July 2022. Retrieved 6 July 2022.
  25. ^ "Rearview Revisited: Segregation and the Sugar Bowl". 14 November 2019.
  26. ^ "A Half Century Ago, Georgia Tech Made a Racial Stand That Changed College Football Forever". Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  27. ^ "Finding Aid for University of Georgia Integration Materials 1938–1965". University Archives. Archived from the original on May 21, 2013. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  28. ^ "Memphis World" (PDF). 1950-05-23. Retrieved 2022-07-17.
  29. ^ "Pay in Engineering Viewed as Lagging". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 July 2022.
  30. ^ "Campus Map: Van Leer Building". Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  31. ^ Leflouria, Erika. "Film to focus on Georgia Tech, fight against segregation at 1956 Sugar Bowl". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  32. ^ "Kennesaw State and Southern Polytechnic Will Consolidate | Communications | University System of Georgia". Retrieved 2021-11-23.
  33. ^ "Blake Van Leer, Educator, Dead; Georgia Tech President Was 62 – Barred Cancellation of Bowl Game Over Negro Hailed by Faculty Basketball Game Off". The New York Times. January 24, 1956.
  34. ^ "Maryly VanLeer Peck". Florida Women's Hall of Fame. Florida Commission on the Status of Women. Retrieved 29 March 2018.
  35. ^ "Anthony Wayne: Wayne State's Namesake and Batman's Ancestor – Ethnic Layers of Detroit".
  36. ^ "Mother's an Engineer". Life. 1962. pp. 102–106.
  37. ^ "Navy Civil Engineer, Volumes 11–12". 1970-04-14. Retrieved 2020-02-03.
  38. ^ Services, Asheville Mortuary. "Obituary for Samuel Wall Van Leer | Asheville Mortuary Services". Obituary for Samuel Wall Van Leer | Asheville Mortuary Services. Retrieved 2022-07-26.
  39. ^ Andreolle, Donna Spalding (1970). Women and Science, 17th Century to Present: Pioneers, Activists and Protagonists. Cambridge Scholars. ISBN 9781443830676.
  40. ^ "Campus Map: Van Leer Building". Retrieved 2007-05-20.
  41. ^ "Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Vol. 50, No. 03 1972 by Georgia Tech Alumni Association - Issuu". 8 October 2013.
  42. ^ "Engineering frontline [2005 : January]".
  43. ^ Craig, Robert M. (2021). Atlanta's Public Art. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 9781467107396.
  44. ^ LeFlouria, Erika. "Film to focus on Georgia Tech, fight against segregation at 1956 Sugar Bowl". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]