Larry R. Marshall
Aerospace Engineering, Class of 1966, BS
Engineering Science and Mechanics, Class of 1974, Ph.D.
At any given time, the chemical company DuPont has some 10 to 15 DuPont Fellows, a very elite corps when one considers the company employs some 60,000 people worldwide.
For four years, from 2004 until his retirement in 2008, Larry Marshall was one of those recognized few for his technical achievements. For him, his accolade of Fellow was awarded because he had a track record of inventions — he holds 14 patents. His work generated huge profits for his company, and he maintained a strong history of working with people.
Mr. Marshall, who grew up in Pulaski, Virginia, the sonof two hard-working parents who never attained a high school diploma, was a key expert in the commercialization of DuPont’s Tyvek technology, as well as some 20 other key innovations.
The first person in his family to attend and graduate from college, Mr. Marshall was encouraged by his parents to get the sheepskin. “We were poor in terms of infrastructure, but rich in experience,” he says today. He spent his boyhood summer days on his uncle’s farm in Leesburg where he labored as a field hand, working 10 hours a day, six days a week. But one of the perks was his uncle handed him the keys to a 1958 Chevy truck, and he taught himself how to drive, using the farm’s fields.
So when it came time to commute from Pulaski to Blacksburg for four years, since he couldn’t afford room and board at Virginia Tech, it was an easy decision. He 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.
His expenses in those days, other than the bus fare, amounted to $90 a quarter or $270 a year to attend Virginia Tech between 1962 and 1966. So, for a little over $1000 in academic fees, he earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, 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.
As a commuter student, the young adult had no time for extracurricular activities, but he did manage to meet his future wife, Jo Ann, a Radford University student, on a blind date during his sophomore year. They married the Saturday following his graduation, and on Monday, he reported to his new job at Boeing in Huntsville, Alabama. 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 Mr. 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 recalls. Also, as the Apollo moon launch of 1969 grew closer, he noticed Boeing was laying off its cadre of engineers. “When I first arrived, there were some 5000 employees as we ramped up. Boeing was down to some 800 by 1968.”
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.
With Jo Ann and their twins now in tow, he felt the pressure to get his doctorate finished, but he had a few snags. He 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.
Mr. Marshall’s adviser was Dean Mook, a professor who worked closely with Ali Nayfeh, both of whom were extremely accomplished in their fields. Nayeh asked him to perform an experiment, and when he produced an unexpected result that seemed impossible, Nayfeh politely asked him to reprogram the equations and get “it right the next time.” The obedient doctoral candidate followed the professor’s instructions, except he still finished with the same unbelievable result. This time, everyone took notice, and the pivotal work led to Dr. Marshall’s Ph.D. dissertation, and into more than 30 years of successful research into nonlinear ship motions by Nayfeh and Mook, among others.
Dr. Marshall recounts that experience in a book he authored in 2010, called “Creativity and Successful Innovation.” Appropriately, he calls the chapter, “Learning from ideas that do not work.”
As he was finishing his dissertation, a number of job offers came to him. He 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,” Dr. Marshall says. His family moved to Richmond, Virginia, in 1974 where DuPont maintained a key facility, and the Marshalls still reside today in nearby Chesterfield.
In the early days, he suffered some more disillusionment, similar to his initial experience with Boeing. “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, Dr. Marshall admits. So, in his off-hours, he would work on his own experiments, running tests, and learning more about science and technology. He developed some side projects. 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. Dr. Marshall figured out how to scale up the process, and reveals that since 1983 DuPont has been using his process.
The engineer also experienced a culture change at DuPont in the 1980s when he says employees became valued for their creativity. Dr. Marshall says the shift turned his attitude around, and he now felt like he was in one of the best jobs in the country.
After 34 years with the company, Dr. 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,” he recalls.
But serendipity intervened, and Dr. Marshall soon teamed with venture capitalists interested in nanotechnology. With their support he soon started Verdex Technologies of Richmond, Virginia, and now serves as its chief executive officer. “Our work is all green. We do not use any solvents. Our fibers are biologically compatible, and we are now experimenting with putting nanoparticles into our fibers,” Dr. Marshall explains. “We have some ideas we are exploring with agricultural applications and we are also looking at some tissue engineering work.”
The Hokie has felt the stress of turning into an entrepreneur in his 60s, but he also notes “there is real excitement. I do have a degree of freedom with my pension from DuPont.” And this time as his creativity explodes, a percentage of the profit will come back to him, unlike working for the corporation. “DuPont treated me well, but I never participated in the wealth generated,” Dr. Marshall says. This time it will be different.”
With Verdex, Dr. Marshall is also hoping to team with some faculty members at Virginia Tech. “I have a strong allegiance to Virginia Tech. If I had not been able to come to school here, I wouldn’t have had the life I led. Virginia Tech gave me the opportunity,” he reflects.
He 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.
Class of: 1966 (AE), Class of: 1974 (ESM)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2012