Samuel H. McGhee III
Class of 1963, BS
When Sam McGhee was six years old, he knew he wanted to be a civil engineer (CE). As an impressionable youngster, he had listened to his mother proudly speak about the accomplishments of her brother, a CE. Sam’s uncle had assisted in the construction of the Tower of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and helped build the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The excitement he felt about building things as a young boy never left him, and today he can revel in his own accomplishments. Among them, he helped guide the consulting engineering firm of Mattern and Craig from a small operation of a half a dozen employees to a staff of more than 100 with offices in five locations in addition to his home base of Roanoke, Virginia. His own repertoire of projects includes Roanoke’s largest water treatment facility, housing projects, and highway interchanges.
Born in Washington, D.C., Mr. McGhee has spent his entire career in the Commonwealth. After graduating from Groveton High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, he started a two-year pre-engineering curriculum at William and Mary. As a junior, he transferred to Virginia Tech. He excelled in the CE curriculum, earning membership in two honorary societies: Chi Epsilon and Tau Beta Pi. He was also active in the American Society of Civil Engineers and in the American Road Builders Association. He received his Hokie degree in 1963.
His first job as Assistant Town Engineer for Front Royal, Virginia, taught him that politics plays an enormous role in a civil engineer’s life. Attendance at town council meetings became a requirement of his job as he worked with the citizens and the town personnel on everything from storm drainage concerns to street resurfacing. “I had no idea of the political requirements to my profession, but fortunately, I enjoy working with people,” reflects Mr. McGhee.
His next stop was Martinsville, Virginia, where he served as Chief of the city’s engineering division. But it wasn’t long before he packed his family’s bags and moved everyone to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1969. He accepted the position of City Engineer and later became the Assistant City Manager. He became active in the community, earning the Outstanding Young Man of the Year award in 1973 from the Roanoke Jaycees. The Roanoke City Council presented him with a key to the city in 1981. He also served for a number of years on the board and as President of Roanoke’s Festival in the Park.
With a number of accolades now behind him, Mr. McGhee decided to leave the public sector in 1981 and join Mattern and Craig of Roanoke, Virginia, where he would spend the rest of his professional career. Starting as a project and marketing manager, he assisted a number of small communities in the upgrading of their standard facilities. Later, he worked on Roanoke’s Carvin’s Cove Water Treatment Plant, as well as one of the entrances to the Valley View Shopping Center. The company’s growth was “staggering,” says Mr. McGhee, and it came as a result “of changes in state procurement laws, and our firm was chosen for a number of jobs based on our qualifications.”
A stroke in 1997 brought about Mr. McGhee’s early retirement as company President. But, as he reflects, “I have enjoyed my retirement, even in a wheelchair.” He remains active, serving on two boards that help the physically disabled: the Blue Ridge Independent Living Center and the Foundation for Rehabilitative Equipment and Endowment. Both are located in Roanoke.
He first learned philanthropy from another mentor, his father, who worked for the American Red Cross. “Philanthropy has always been important to me.”
Mr. McGhee has made numerous contributions to Virginia Tech. He has served on Virginia Tech’s Presidential Advisory Board, the College of Engineering’s Executive Committee during the Capital Campaign of the 1990s, and as a member and as Chair of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board. He also is a member of the University’s Ut Prosim Society and the Legacy Society.
He remains an active member of the Second Presbyterian Church of Roanoke, where he is a member of the College of Elders. “I decided to make Roanoke my permanent home because it was a nice place to raise our children,” Mr. McGhee says.
He and his wife, Sara, have four children, three of whom followed Dad’s footsteps and graduated as Hokies. He jokingly adds that his fourth child, Will, “sadly” did not attend Virginia Tech — but he did graduate from Georgetown University and is now a major in the U.S. Army.
Class of: 1963
Year Inducted into Academy: 2003