BLACKSBURG, Va., April 6, 2012 – Larry Marshall, of Chesterfield, Va., who earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech in 1966, is a 2012 inductee into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, joining an elite group of 112 individuals out of more than 58,000 living engineering alumni.
The Academy of Engineering Excellence was founded in 1999 by F. William Stephenson, past dean of the college of engineering, and the College’s Advisory Board. The inductees are engineering graduates of Virginia Tech who have made continuous and admirable engineering or leadership contributions during their careers. This year marked the thirteenth anniversary of the first induction.
Marshall, who grew up in Pulaski, Va., was the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college. He couldn’t afford room and board at Virginia Tech and was actually able to join a group of Pulaski Hokies who formed a corporation and bought a bus. For his share of $3 a week, he traveled daily more than 50 miles to and from the campus to study engineering. For its part, the University provided the commuters with a room in Squires Student Center that they could use between classes, as their bus arrived daily before 8 a.m. and never left until after 5 p.m.
So for a little over $1000 in academic fees, he earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1966, a subject he selected because of his boyhood interest in the burgeoning space program that was intent on putting a man on the moon by the end of that decade.
On the Saturday following graduation, Marshall married his college sweetheart, Jo Ann, and on Monday he reported to his new job at Boeing in Huntsville, Ala. Working with this aerospace giant had been his goal, mainly because he was infatuated with its production of the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, used by NASA’s Apollo and Skylab programs from 1967 until 1973.
Working on the space program also provided Marshall, who had been classified 1A for the military draft during the height of the Vietnam War, with a deferment. At that time in the 1960s, the nation considered working on the space program as a bona fide reason not to draft a young man.
A critical and unexpected problem for him was he found the position with Boeing boring. “My job was to maintain the design documentation, and I was disappointed,” he recalled. Also, as the Apollo moon launch of 1969 grew closer, he noticed Boeing was laying off its cadre of engineers.
So he dropped back to 30 hours a week at Boeing, and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama at Huntsville where he spent an additional 20 hours each week. He received his master’s in fluids and thermal sciences in 1970, but although he found the space program “electrifying in its intensity,” he made a tough career decision to leave this branch of engineering behind.
Subsequently, he returned to Virginia Tech where he started his doctoral program as a teaching assistant in engineering science and mechanics. But, Marshall flunked an oral exam covering dynamics, fluid mechanics, and solid mechanics by one point, ruining his classroom role. Fortuitously, Dan Frederick, then the department head, offered him a fellowship that he immediately accepted.
Marshall’s adviser was Dean Mook, a professor who worked closely with Ali Nayfeh, both of whom were extremely accomplished in their fields. An experiment, which Nayfeh asked him to perform twice because the first results seemed so improbable, produced pivotal work, leading to Marshall’s Ph.D. dissertation. More than 30 years of successful research into nonlinear ship motions by Nayfeh and Mook and others followed based on this dissertation. Marshall recounts that experience in a book he authored in 2010, called “Creativity and Successful Innovation.” Appropriately, he called the chapter, “Learning from ideas that do not work.”
Upon completing his dissertation, Marshall went on an interview with DuPont, and was impressed by the level of talent it was employing. “They had a heavy hitting group with Ph.D.s from Stanford, Princeton, and Carnegie Mellon, and so I decided to accept their offer,” Marshall said. His family moved to Richmond, Va., in 1974 where DuPont maintained a key facility.
“Moving from a high-level academic experience to the world of reality, I was just not prepared. I almost resigned but with two kids,” that was an impracticality, Marshall admitted. So in his offhours, he would work on his own experiments, running tests, and learning more about science and technology. In the large corporation, he also found that he was working in a somewhat formal, top-down management culture in the beginning. But as he learned more about the products than the management knew, he landed in a better tactical position in the company.
The DuPont executives soon called upon him to see how fast he might be able to produce its product called Tyvek. Marshall figured out how to scale up the process, and reveals that since 1983 DuPont has been using his process. And the engineer also experienced a culture change at DuPont in the 1980s when employees became valued for their creativity. Marshall said the shift turned his attitude around, and he now felt like he was in one of the best jobs in the country.
From 2004 until 2008, Larry Marshall was recognized by Dupont for his technical achievements and named a DuPont Fellow. At any given time, there are only 10 to 15 DuPont Fellows, out of some 60,000 Dupont employees worldwide. For him, his accolade of Fellow was awarded because he had a track record of inventions – he holds 14 patents.
After 34 years with the company, Marshall took his retirement in 2008, and started his own consulting business. But his timing was definitely ill planned as the U.S. was entering into its prolonged recession, the worst since the Great Depression. “Everyone was hunkering down. All corporations got much tighter,” Marshall recalled. But serendipity intervened, and he soon teamed with venture capitalists interested in nanotechnology. With their support he soon started Verdex Technologies of Richmond, Va., and now serves as its chief executive officer.
Marshall has already given back to the University many times over, starting the Richmond office of DuPont’s co-op program with Virginia Tech in the 1980s. He helped found the advisory board for the department of engineering science and mechanics. He also served on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board, and worked specifically on its marketing committee. Among his many contributions was his personal effort around the turn of this century to help improve the recruitment and graduation of Ph.D.s in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
The Marshalls are long-term members of the Committee of 100 of the College of Engineering. Their two children, Shelly and John, also graduated from Virginia Tech.