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Essex E. Finney Jr.

Essex Finney Jr. with his Academy of Engineering Excellence award

B.S., Agricultural Engineering, Virginia Tech, 1959
Induction year: 2023

Well before transferring to Virginia Tech from Virginia State College, Essex E. Finney Jr. knew he wanted to study agricultural engineering. Having grown up on a farm that harvested grain, he understood how technology could help farmers use their resources more effectively. When Finney’s family bought their first tractor in 1951, they no longer had to walk behind the horses as they plowed their 200-acre farm.

As one of the first six Black students to attend Virginia Tech, Finney lived and ate with Mr. and Mrs. Hoge and his other Black classmates on East Clay Street. In the 1950s, the Hoges opened up their home to the Black students who were not allowed to live, eat, or otherwise use nonacademic amenities on campus because of university policy at the time. The Hoges provided students with room, board, and laundry assistance for $60 a month, in addition to a sense of care and support that would have been difficult to find otherwise.

Finney thought being part of the first two cohorts of Black students was an exciting experience, but he didn't consider himself a pioneer in that light. 

“I thought the other Black students who were two years ahead of me might have been pioneers. But by the time I arrived, things were working pretty smoothly,” Finney said. 

The agricultural engineering department chair, Earl Swink, had the greatest influence on Finney’s long-term career. Swink encouraged Finney to attend graduate school instead of joining the military. After Finney explained that he couldn’t afford to further his education, Swink worked with a professor at Pennsylvania State University to get Finney into its graduate agricultural engineering program, along with securing a research assistantship and financial support. Finney, after receiving his master’s degree, went on to earn his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from Michigan State University. 

Finney had a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the last three years of his career, he worked at the Agricultural Research Center, the chief scientific in-house research agency for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He evaluated agricultural products and developed handling processes focused on quality control. 

The proudest moment of his career was being called to work as a senior policy analyst in the Office of the Science Advisor under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. 

“When I worked with President Carter to define the priorities for research and science for the Department of Agriculture to help farmers and the people who buy agricultural products, I felt that I had reached a peak of my career,” Finney said.

Finney is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.

Current town:
Mitchellville, MD

Macon, VA 

Degrees from other institutions:

  • M.S., Agricultural Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, 1960
  • Ph.D., Agricultural Engineering, Michigan State University, 1963

Professional roles

  • Acting Administrator, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1995
  • Associate Administrator, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, 1992-1995
  • Director, Beltsville Research Center, USDA, 1989-1992
  • Appointed to the Federal Senior Executive Service, 1988
  • Senior Policy Analyst, Office of the Science Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan, 1980-1981
  • Assistant Director, Beltsville Research Center, USDA, 1977-1989
  • Research Agricultural Engineer, Instrumentation Research Laboratory, Beltsville Research Center, USDA, 1965-1977
  • Officer, U.S. Army, 1963-1965

Professional awards:

  • African Scientific Institute, Fellow
  • American Society of Agricultural Engineers, Member
  • National Academy of Engineering, Member, 1994
  • Engineering Alumni Award, Pennsylvania State University College of Engineering,1985
  • Princeton Fellow in Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University, 1973-1974

Why did you decide to come to Virginia Tech? 
I started at Virginia State College in Petersburg for two years to get fundamental training in science and education before transferring to a school with engineering. Virginia State College did not have a Black college that offered engineering at that time. 

Virginia Tech was the right fit for me because I grew up on a farm. I was interested in staying in agriculture, but I wanted to get training from a program where I could use mechanical engineering to build tractors and repair equipment, things of that nature. 

How did you decide what to major in at Virginia Tech?
Growing up on a farm as a young boy, we would walk behind horses all day, plowing the fields. It wasn’t until 1951 that we bought our first tractor. Having that new technology convinced me to continue to learn about agriculture. 

Who influenced you the most during your career or your time at Virginia Tech?
The person who had the greatest influence on my long-term career was Earl Swink, chair of the agricultural engineering department. The spring before I was ready to graduate from Virginia Tech, Professor Swink called me into his office to ask me what my plans were. After telling him I was planning to become a military officer, he said that I should go to graduate school instead. I explained that I couldn’t afford it. Twelve days later, he told me that he worked with a professor at Penn State to get me into its agricultural engineering program with a research assistantship and financial support. That was a huge contribution to my career planning.

What was the moment in your career that you felt like you made it – that you were really proud of yourself for what you had accomplished?
The proudest moment in my career was when I was asked to be part of the White House’s Office of the Science Advisor. I worked with Jimmy Carter to define the priorities for research and science for the Department of Agriculture. Our work reviewed the agricultural needs of farmers and farm organizations.

Please note: Inductee spotlight is as of the year of their induction.