$10 million scholarship gift builds on the generous legacy of a champion of education
The Preston and Catharine White Endowed Diversity Scholarship will help numerous students each year.
Fifty-seven years ago Preston White made the bold decision to leave a steady job estimating projects and start his own concrete contracting business.
He started with one excavator and three employees. They helped him, figuratively and literally, lay the foundation for Century Concrete, a firm that employs over 500 people today.
His first three employees were three middle-aged Black men, B.C. Cross, Earl Carter, and Sylvester Riddick. Unlike White, they had no diplomas on their resumes. Very much like him, they were always ready to work hard, day in, day out, together. Riddick was on their team for five years. Cross and Carter stayed with Century Concrete until they retired.
“I ate lunch with them, worked with them, took them home and picked them up,” White said. “I got to know them pretty well but never thought about the fact that I had a college degree and they didn’t have high school degrees, it was just where we were in life. They were hard workers and never missed a day and put a lot into it. I never really thought a lot about it — until my wife and I got talking.”
White and his wife, Catharine, got talking after they sold Century Concrete a year and a half ago. They talked about how they could make a difference by helping others with a sizeable gift from their family foundation.
“We started thinking about where the success of the business came from, rolled it all the way back to day one with those three men and a lot of others along the way that played a part in the success of our company and our financial success,” she said. “We thought, if we give back why not give back to honor people who never had the same opportunities we did? They went to school before integration, and certainly before college was as welcoming to them as it might be now. If any one of those guys had had the opportunity to go to college on a scholarship, they might not have been concrete workers.”
The Whites decided to give $10 million to Virginia Tech to create the Preston and Catharine White Endowed Diversity Scholarship.
The Preston and Catharine White Endowed Diversity Scholarship eventually will provide scholarships of $5,000 to $7,500 to roughly 70-80 students each year. Nine recipients benefit from it this initial semester, including Elroi Elias, a first-year student in the College of Engineering’s computer science program.
“The scholarship is a big help,” said Elias, who grew up in Fairfax, Virginia. “Being a first-generation student and the oldest sibling, I’m something of a guinea pig for my family when it comes to college. I don’t want to leave a big burden, and this scholarship allows me to just focus hard on school. My biggest fear was to be in debt, and this scholarship eases that. I’m really grateful for all it does to help me with my path in college.”
Champion for education
Preston White is a longtime champion of education. He has served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and the Christopher Newport University Board of Visitors, where he was rector for three years. He now serves on the Board of Visitors for Eastern Virginia Medical School and the E3 School, an innovative, mixed-income, year-round model school for children ages one to five in Norfolk, Virginia.
“I look at the divisions of all the people in this country and the world, and a lot of it comes from lack of education, probably the bulk of it,” White said. “If we can educate everybody, things will change.”
Along with his family, White has given over $21 million to the university, directed to a wide range of programs including the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, the Blackwood Department of Real Estate, and Virginia Tech Athletics. The Whites’ most recent and largest gift sets up a scholarship program that will help the university build on efforts around diversity and ensuring a more welcoming community for all, which have been recognized multiple times in recent years.
The Preston and Catharine White Endowed Diversity Scholarship gives priority to in-state applicants who have participated in or been identified through Virginia Tech’s Black College Institute, an academic summer enrichment program for rising high school juniors and seniors that is open to students from any race who wish to participate.
The scholarship also has preferences for students who demonstrate an interest and commitment to the African American student experience by participating in organizations such as, but not limited to, the Black Student Alliance, Black Organizations Council, Student African American Brotherhood at Virginia Tech, Student African American Sisterhood at Virginia Tech, NAACP, or similar officially recognized registered student organizations.
Students in programs from the College of Engineering, including its Myers-Lawson School of Construction, are particularly encouraged to apply, as are students in programs from Pamplin College of Business’ Blackwood Department of Real Estate.
The scholarship does not have a preference for grade point average, which White said was very intentional, based on his own experience having had to leave Virginia Tech and later reenroll after he “flunked out” his first year.
“When I first went to Tech I thought I wanted to be an architect,” he said. “I learned I wasn’t a good enough artist to be an architect. There were all these van Goghs and I was drawing stick figures.”
Following a conversation with William Favrao, who founded the university’s building construction program and headed it until 1977, White left school for a year.
“Bill told me I had what it took to make it, but if I came back to go into building construction,” White recalls. “I stayed out a year, worked in the day and went to night school, and next year I came back. I look at that as a big turning point.”
A member of the Class of 1963, White served in the Coast Guard reserve for eight years, remaining on call while focusing on building his construction-industry career.
While still in school, he worked on projects such as construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. A few years into his career, he recognized the potential for concrete contracting to become more important in large-scale projects due to technological developments.
“The world started to change,” White recalled. “Technology and equipment was coming into play to allow concrete work to be done on a larger scale. I saw an opening there, and I took it. There was really nobody else to go to work for in the concrete industry at that point, so I had to do it myself.”
While the process wasn’t always smooth, Century Concrete hit its stride in the early 2000s, specializing in larger-scale construction like airport paving, seawalls, water treatment plants, high-rise buildings, data centers, and tilt-wall warehouses. Today, the company president is still a Hokie, Mike Hauser ’84, whose hiring White cites as one of his best decisions.
“The president’s a Hokie, our vice president of operations is a Hokie, and I would say half of our project managers are Hokies,” White said. “We recruit heavily at Virginia Tech.”
Asked how he likes to unwind now that he’s theoretically retired, having sold his company, White says of his family: “We like to travel. And I like hard work. I still have a big farm on the Eastern Shore and go there to mow fields and work on the tractor. I don’t sit still very easily.”
A tireless advocate for education, White continues to work on behalf of Virginia Tech and other schools, drawing on his numerous relationships, and building new ones, to share his belief in the power of learning to change lives.
He shows no sign of slowing down. In December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was a key speaker at a virtual event to urge fellow Hokies to donate in support of the Beyond Boundaries Scholars matching gift program and get involved in Boundless Impact: The Campaign for Virginia Tech, even though he was wearing a neck brace after cervical vertebrae fusion surgery.
The university is now implementing Virginia Tech Advantage, an expansive multiyear commitment to remove financial barriers and improve student success for those with financial need. The Preston and Catharine White Endowed Diversity Scholarship is a shining example of a Hokie family stepping forward in support of the university’s commitment to meeting the needs of its students — and White plans to travel to Blacksburg later this week to help champion the Virginia Tech Advantage initiative.
“This extraordinary gift will make it possible for students with financial needs to fully benefit from the Virginia Tech experience and the long-term value of their degrees”, said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “We are extremely grateful to Preston and his family for establishing this generous scholarship, and their enthusiastic support for our university.”