An Engineering Legacy: U.Va.'s Oldest Alum to See His Great-Grandson Follow in His Footsteps

May 14, 2010 — In 1929, Charles McMurdo walked the Lawn at the University of Virginia to graduate from the School of Engineering and Applied Science with an electrical engineering degree. Today, at 103 years old, he is the oldest living alum of the University.

This May, 81 years after McMurdo made that ceremonial walk, a great-grandson, Matthew Vinson, will follow in his footsteps. Vinson, a Richmond native who came to U.Va. after graduating from J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, is set to continue a legacy of engineering and a life focused on family and faith.

In addition to his great-grandfather, Vinson's maternal and paternal grandfathers were engineers. This family inspiration and his passion for hands-on projects allowed Vinson to discover his career path early.

"I love working with my hands, as well as the design side of engineering," he said. "In high school, I quickly figured out that I wanted to become a civil engineer."

Vinson now lives outside of Richmond in Ashland, with his wife, Heather. For the past two years – including every day this academic year – he's made the 90-minute, one-way commute to U.Va. to complete work for a civil engineering degree. Before enrolling in the Engineering School, Vinson graduated at the top of his community college class with a 3.97 grade-point average and an associate's degree in engineering.

Throughout his college career, Vinson, 23, has balanced his stellar academic achievement with his dedication to his family and service work.

In 2003, he made a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, distributing food and clothes in rural villages and ministering at local churches. In summer 2006, he traveled to Wisconsin to help run a vacation Bible school for children in an impoverished community. Upon returning to school at J. Sargeant Reynolds, he was inspired to found the Oasis Bible Study, which continues to this day.

It was there, in the Oasis Bible Study, that he met his wife. They quickly bonded in the group and he invited her to attend the Living Word Assembly Church in Ashland. Their friendship and faith became the foundation for their young marriage.

At community college and at U.Va., Vinson earned scholarships and took advantage of the AccessUVa financial assistance program to help pay for his education. He participated in the American Society of Civil Engineering's Concrete Canoe Contest and has been involved in Chi Alpha, a Christian-based fraternity. He will be graduating from the Engineering School on May 23.

Vinson has found a common thread between his ministry work and engineering: the importance of people.

"In civil engineering, it's not just designing and building, it's working with people and for people," he said.

The story of how Vinson ended up a soon-to-be graduate from U.Va's Engineering School cannot be told without tracing the importance of his family.

On his father's side, his grandfather graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with an engineering degree. He became a two-star general in charge of artillery in Korea during the early '70s. On his mother's side, his grandfather graduated from Virginia Tech with a mechanical engineering degree. Now retired, his grandfather still enjoys engineering projects. He has put his talents to work by helping to repair the heating, ventilating and air conditioning system at his church and helping to build Vinson's parents' current home in Montpelier.

His father, who graduated from the U.Va. School of Law in 1977, decided that he also wanted a "hands-on" profession. And so, after beginning his career as a lawyer, he followed his heart and made a career change to construction and carpentry.

While honing his building skills working with his father on construction projects during summer breaks from school, Vinson learned about the importance of finding a career that makes you happy.

"Construction was something my dad wanted to do," he said. "You've got to enjoy what you do, and he definitely does."

Vinson also gains inspiration from McMurdo, whom he calls Great-Granddaddy Mac.

He cherishes hearing his great-grandfather tell stories of growing up on a Montana farm and attending U.Va. in the 1920s. Vinson recalls him telling the story of winging a hawk with a rifle shot when it tried to snatch one of the family's chickens, then mending the hawk's wing and keeping it as a pet. 

When McMurdo decided to attend U.Va., he had to make his way across the country on a cattle train for five days until he could catch a passenger train in Chicago. Once he arrived in Charlottesville, he lived and worked at his uncle's Albemarle County farm. He bought a motorcycle for $40 so he could travel to the University after milking cows in the morning.

Vinson remembers his great-grandfather telling him how students signed up for classes by visiting professors in their offices and asking for their approval. McMurdo told him how he would determine the popularity of a class by the length of the line coming out of the office door.

After graduation, McMurdo took a job with C&P Telephone in Richmond and found extra work grading papers for a U.Va. physics professor. He told his great-grandson how the papers were couriered between Richmond and Charlottesville by bus. 

Eighty years later, Vinson also commutes to class each day. He also found part-time work grading papers for a geotechnical engineering class.

Beginning with his great-grandfather, Vinson has been inspired by men in his family who have taken similar career paths.  

"They did what they wanted to do and worked hard," Vinson said. "They lived clean, moral lives and they are reaping the rewards."

Vinson has straightforward career aspirations. After graduation, he wants to work as a civil engineer for a Richmond-area firm. He is now establishing contacts and interviewing for jobs.

"It's always been my dream to become a civil engineer and I'm excited to do just that," he said. "I thank God I've had a clear direction.

"I want to be good at what I do and have a reputation for being hardworking. I want to help people."

Vinson visits often with his great-grandfather and is impressed with the older man's keen intellect and constant thankfulness for his family and fulfilling life. While Vinson and his great-grandfather are divided by 80 years and vast changes in technology, they are bonded by family and a natural tendency to keep life simple and orderly. 

Vinson drives the 1989 Chevrolet Celebrity that his great-grandfather drove until he was 99 years old. For the past few years, Vinson has driven the car between Ashland and Charlottesville to attend classes.

Soon after he became the new owner, Vinson discovered a detailed record of the car's 20-year maintenance history. It's a point of pride for him to keep up that impeccable handwritten record started by his Great-Granddaddy Mac.

— By Zak Richards