Donald L. Sage
Class of 1956, BS
Don Sage, one of two sons raised by his mother, Virginia Beazley Sage, never had a doubt that he would be attending college. Although his parents divorced when he was only two, his uncle, a member of the mining industry, stepped in as a mentor to the young man.
“Engineering had an appeal for me,” Mr. Sage reminisces, and Virginia Tech was my choice. I had to take bonehead algebra my first academic quarter, but after that I moved right on into the mainstream,” he laughs.
Arriving on campus in 1952, the Corps of Cadets’ member selected industrial engineering because he “liked the idea of making processes better.” He secured a summertime job at the Richmond Engineering Company (RECO) where he got his first taste of manufacturing, but he also enjoyed his part-time job of selling ice cream. He made 65 cents an hour. This retailer recognized the obvious talents of the young man and soon asked him to manage the ice cream operation at a whopping increase to 75 cents an hour. “My first two summers I invented some good ice cream dishes,” Mr. Sage grins.
When graduation time came, Mr. Sage had a number of offers to sort through, and he again turned to his uncle for advice. “He liked Western Electric since it was part of the Bell System, and he spoke of the opportunity to have a long career there,” Mr. Sage recalls. “Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of AT&T and it was a good choice for me as it and AT&T jointly owned Bell Labs, one of the world’s great human resources.”
The Hokie started at Western Electric’s Winston-Salem, North Carolina, location, but was soon called to military service. He spent six months at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and another 18 months at Fort Bragg where he commanded an ordnance company. A second opportunity to serve occurred with the erection of the Berlin Wall, a long-time symbol of the “Iron Curtain” in Germany. His tour lasted 12 months before he returned to his lifetime career with the communications giant.
In 1973, he jumped at the chance to assist in the start-up operations of Western Electric’s Richmond, Virginia, Printed Wiring Board factory, a plant that transformed into ATT Microelectronics. It became Lucent Technologies after Sage retired in 1994. Even before construction, management decided the plant would become a paperless manufacturer, with everything performed on-line with instantaneous feedback. The plant would become the world’s largest manufacturer of printed circuit boards under one roof.
“We produced miles of these circuit boards each week, with all of the designs transferred in digital information, and then machine instructions and finally orders readied for shipment,” Mr. Sage says about this very progressive operation in the 1970s. As the engineering manager, Mr. Sage and his employees had to write their own software, and since the computers were not linked at the time, they also had to “fool them” to allow them to talk to one another. We took the designs we received and created families, which allowed automatic placement of multiple circuit board images on a panel. This meant that we were able to shorten the intervals for manufacture, and therefore, get the product to our customers faster than any of our competitors.”
The creativity of Mr. Sage’s group brought much attention to the Richmond facility. In 1984, Fortune magazine described the operation as one of the 10 best-managed factories in America. Mr. Sage’s management team received the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' CASA Award for its leadership and excellence in enterprise integration.
Mr. Sage became AT&T’s campus manager, allowing him to return to Virginia Tech where he says he was able to attract hundreds of Hokies to work for his employer. He was also successful in brokering deals for a $1 million gift of computing equipment and a several hundred thousand dollar manufacturing research award to his alma mater. AT&T recognized Mr. Sage in 1990 for producing the “most effective overall college relations program” of its group of 160 teams.
The Virginia Tech engineer became a charter member of the ISE Advisory Board founded by Marvin Agee, then the department head. He was one of five industry members on the first board, providing advice to the academics about the needs of industry. Mr. Sage remained on the board for 20 years, serving a rotation of department heads. “I think we influenced the curriculum … mainly through our ideas about the integration of systems, possibly even influencing the creation of the Management Systems Laboratory. We also established the Agee Scholarship Fund, and a number of our board members established fellowships."
Mr. Sage also spent four years on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board from 1997 until 2001. In 1987, he received the Outstanding Alumni Award from the Virginia Tech chapter of Alpha Pi Mu, and, in 2004, the ISE department presented him with its Marvin Agee Distinguished Alumni Award. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a past member of the Engineering Executive Council for the Campaign for Virginia Tech in 1996-1998.
“I owe a lot to Virginia Tech. When something so valuable is given to you, you want to try and help out where you can,” Mr. Sage says simply of his own generosity.
He also employs the same feelings about his community and his church. He was recently appointed to the Virginia Baptist Mission Board of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He is a chapter vice-president of the New Outlook Pioneers for 2007-09, a division of TelecomPioneers, the largest service organization in the U.S. and Canada. It includes current and retired employees of telecommunication companies throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Mr. Sage and his wife Mary Etta of 52 years have three children and seven grandchildren. Despite meeting Mary Etta on a blind date when he thought he had not made a good impression, she had different ideas that have lasted them a lifetime.
Class of: 1956
Year Inducted into Academy: 2009