Tom Brown reflects on long career at Virginia Tech
Even if you have never met Tom Brown, you probably know him by sight. One of the most recognizable individuals at Virginia Tech, the long-time and recently retired dean of students is as close as the community comes to having a “campus celebrity.”
Some might call him the definitive Hokie.
In 1971, Brown came to Virginia Tech as a student, knowing nothing about the university. He earned a degree in horticulture from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and went on to the University of Virginia for his master’s degree in education.
Brown began his long career with Virginia Tech as a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent working with the 4-H program in Albemarle County, then worked in Extension administration in Blacksburg. From there he joined the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, leading student programs, alumni chapter support, and class reunion events.
In 1994, Brown joined the Office of the Dean of Students, advocating for students and helping them navigate obstacles to make the most of their Hokie experience. In 2004, he was appointed dean of students, a position he held until July 2018. Brown then continued his service to Virginia Tech as assistant to the vice president for Student Affairs until his retirement this spring.
As dean of students, Brown served with determination, optimism, and energy to promote and advance student well-being. He handled tough cases — from the hilarious and bizarre to the heartbreaking — with discretion, empathy, humanity, and care.
We asked Brown a series of fill-in-the-blank questions about his feelings and experiences during his 47 years at Virginia Tech.
What was the most [BLANK] about your time at Virginia Tech?
- Gratifying: “Empowering a distressed student to turn it around.”
- Surprising: “That I could actually do that. People say ‘I wouldn’t want to do your job,’ but I had the capacity to do it. You have to use both your heart and your head to do this kind of work. Follow policies and procedures – yes. But you must have empathy when caring for students who are in a tough spot.”
- Satisfying: “Most of the work comes to the office as bad or sad, but 99% of the cases turned out very well. To see students go on and be successful – nothing is more satisfying than that.”
- Fun: “Working with the 4-H clubs and the new student Orientation program. Both are exciting times for the participants, and it was fun to work with people who are that enthusiastic. Especially parents at Orientation – it was fun to be able to help them relax, laugh, and learn.”
- Interesting: “The rest of the story. I guarantee that there is always more to a story. Figuring out what the student, parent, faculty member, or roommate is not telling me. Checking facts, investigating circumstances, balancing points of view – I should have been a detective.”
- Difficult: “Managing the university’s response to a student death. There is a profound sadness that surrounds the death of a person 18, 19, 20 years old. What you say or do isn’t as important as the fact that you say or do something. There are no right answers in that situation.”
Brown said the 10 years following the April 16, 2007 tragedy were the most challenging. “We were in the trenches. We were called on to do things in new and different ways — not easy with a constant spotlight shining on you. We had to stay focused and put recommendations from the governor’s panel in place while caring for the families, students, and the campus community.”
In 2012, then-First Lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at Virginia Tech and praised the resilience of the community coming together to support each other during difficult times. “To have someone of that stature say that was a great thing,” Brown said.
But it wasn’t until Virginia Tech marked the 10th year following the shootings that Brown finally paused, caught his breath, and thought, “We did OK.”
Brown said he is a very different person because of his work. “I have a bigger heart than I used to. But that heart is full of holes, representing the tough student scenarios. It is hard to have compassion and empathy, yet not do too much. You have to be careful of crossing lines and acting in ways that don’t empower the student.”
And, he said, it was time to retire. “More than 40 years is enough,” he said. “You realize you are part of the past, and that’s OK – there is exciting life after work!”
Brown’s plans for retirement include gardening, reading, playing with his grandkids, and visiting the beach. He said he wants to “concentrate on the fun parts of the university – the Moss Arts Center, VT athletics, and the many other benefits of connection to a university community.” Brown values the friendships he has made over the years (“Running into people at Kroger is my social life”) and wants to enjoy living in the Town of Blacksburg.
Colleagues, friends, and family gathered for a retirement celebration at the Hahn Horticulture Garden in May. They announced the establishment of the Student Affairs Tom Brown Award for Exemplary Care and Advocacy, a tribute to Brown’s deep passion to develop leaders, provide care, and advocate for students, and which honors his dedication to the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). It will go to a Student Affairs employee who exemplifies outstanding dedication, care, and advocacy for Virginia Tech students and a commitment to improving their lives.
“Tom was a source of light when skies were cloudy, a source of laughter when heads hung low, and a proponent of warm hugs to counter isolation,” the announcement read – a fitting tribute to one who has made a lasting impression on Virginia Tech.
More information on the Student Affairs Awards, including awards criteria and a nomination form, is available online.
Written by Sandy Broughton. Photo by Brian Yohn.