Gilbert L. Faison
Class of 1947, BS
In 1982, Virginia Tech electrical engineering alumnus Gil Faison was riding high, as the Virginia Association of Professionals named him the “Most Outstanding Professional of the Year.” A year later, he recalls, he was facing some of his “darkest days,” working 70 to 80 hours a week to keep his business, Roache, Mercer & Faison, afloat.
Faison joined Roache and Mercer in 1959. The owners, two mechanical engineering graduates of Virginia Tech, recruited Faison with the offer that he would eventually become a partner in the young mechanical and electrical engineering consulting firm. “I had heard that they were good VT men,” Faison says, and so he decided to accept their proposal. Within two years, he assumed a full partnership. For the next 32 years, Faison spent his time working from the Richmond, Virginia, office, traveling from New York to Panama for his various contracts.
Some of the larger design work was the $70 million SunTrust headquarters and the Massey Cancer Center, both in Virginia’s capital city. “We specialized in retrofitting, and I believe we worked on every building at the Medical College of Virginia,” Faison says. “In our government work, we negotiated for the prime design contracts, and then hired the architects and other design subcontractors. We prided ourselves in our work and our insurance carriers never had to pay for a claim filed against us,” Faison adds.
So, when his associates retired in 1983, leaving Faison to run the company solo, he discovered that the firm’s accounting had been mismanaged, and as a result, they were in substantial debt. Gil turned to his life-long partner, Jewel, whom he had met while she was an architecture student at Virginia Tech in 1948. She co-signed bank notes with him, and they both proceeded to rescue the business.
“It was a scary point, and we learned business accounting fast. In a matter of months, we proved to the bank that we were on track to making a profit. The bank continued to monitor our progress and within a few years, we wiped out the debt,” Faison says.
Jewel had always played a huge role in Faison’s career so it was not surprising that the two of them managed the financial turnaround that would take them to their retirement days. They met on a train returning home for the holidays from a semester at Virginia Tech. Jewel was one of about 135 female students at Virginia Tech in the 1940s, and Gil had noticed her many times, hoping for the opportunity for a meeting. Fortuitously, on that ride home to Richmond, the train had assigned seats. Jewel’s position next to him sealed their fate.
At Virginia Tech, Faison had lettered in baseball for three years, starring as the team’s pitcher and shortstop. “I was small but I could throw that ball,” the five-foot-eight-inch man recollects. And if anything was hit to center field, I could count on my center fielder, Chris Kraft, to run down the ball. (Kraft, a 1944 aerospace engineering graduate and retired director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is also a member of the Academy.) In Faison’s home today, one of his prize mementos is a baseball signed by his teammates including Kraft.
Faison’s career at Virginia Tech was interrupted as was most young men in the World War II era. He started college in 1943 at 17, but by the beginning of his sophomore year, he had to enlist in the Navy or face the draft. “I was able to attend the Navy’s radio school in Panama and play on its baseball team. Our team won the Isthmus championship against the Marines in a playoff that year,” Faison smiles.
He returned to Tech, graduating in 1949, but lists himself with the Class of ’47. He was a member of the various honorary societies including Tau Beta Pi, Omicron Delta Kappa, and Eta Kappa Nu. He has amusing memories of his life in the old number 1 barracks, Lane Hall, a place he describes as having “no amenities.” The window sash had gaps, and so in the winter, when the heating pipes gave out and there was no heat, “we would pour water into the cracks. It would freeze and prevent the colder air from blowing in and the warmer air from escaping,” the engineer grins.
When he first graduated, Faison went to work for Appalachian Power Company, based in Lynchburg. This job made him realize that he would eventually want to have his own company. “I was doing engineering out of a cookbook” for the power company and “I really wanted to work on designs of my own,” he recalls. So when Hayes, Seay, Mattern, and Mattern, a Roanoke, Virginia-based engineering firm, offered both him and Jewel employment to work on the company’s contract to redesign the Radford Arsenal, they both accepted. “In fact, they offered Jewel a higher salary,” he reminisces.
Jewel was the only woman working in the firm’s design section at the Arsenal, and she often found herself tormented by her colleagues who would place a fake spider in her path at various times until she got the last laugh and finally flushed it down a toilet. As an architect, she worked with other Hokie celebrities such as G.T. Ward and T.C. Carter, both graduates of the College of Architecture. “She worked fast,” Gil recalls, saying his wife would often finish a project and then help others. “I was the one green behind my ears, but I learned fast” as he was responsible for the redesign of the electrical distribution system of the Radford Arsenal.
From there, Faison remained on a path trying to learn everything he could in the fastest way possible. “I spent a year with W.A. Brown, an electrical and mechanical engineering firm in Richmond, and then spent another year with Allied Chemical and Dye to give me industrial experience.” His final stint was with another consulting firm, Emmet Simmons, for five years before he joined Roche and Mercer.
During his career, his civic work thrived, serving as a past president of the Consulting Engineers Council of Virginia, the Hanover County Ruritan Club, the Electrical League of Richmond, and the Richmond Alumni Chapter of Tau Beta Pi. He spent 24 years on the Henrico County Building Code Board of Appeals, and left feeling as if he was “the granddaddy” of the organization. He continues to teach Sunday School and serve as a trustee, and was his church’s volunteer choir director for 25 years. He was a founding member of Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Advisory Board.
But his proudest volunteer achievement was his selection as the “Professional of the Year.” At the time, in the early 1980s, a movement was afloat in Virginia to require all professionals to bid out their services for state government contracts, so that the award of a contract of professional services would always be given to the low bidder. Professional services included were in the areas of accounting, architecture, land surveying, landscape architecture, law, medicine, optometry, and engineering.
Faison successfully argued “competitive bidding works when there is a clearly specified product. But buildings, bridges, and highways are not clearly specified products. Indeed, determining specifications is one of the primary functions of the engineer or architect. Design professionals contend that it is far better to arrive at a price by negotiating with the most qualified of the three or four firms selected in a traditional competitive negotiation procedure.”
And while he was being politically active, he was also one of the Virginia engineers who successfully helped the University lobby for the completion of the top three floors of Whittemore Hall on the Virginia Tech engineering campus.
Faison and his wife reside in Mechanicsville, Virginia, in a home she designed 18 years ago. Their daughter, Michele, and her husband live next door in a home that Jewel also kibitzes on. But, nowadays, a lot of the shopping is done on the web, and Jewel admits she is not as patient with the art of surfing the Internet as she was when dealing with the spider.
Class of: 1947
Year Inducted into Academy: 2006