E. George Middleton, Jr.
Class of 1950, BS
Virginia Tech’s legendary engineering professor Bosco Rasche once asked George Middleton, Jr., why he wanted to be a “poor engineer when he could become a good plumber?” Rasche posed the question to Middleton during a class after the young student did not answer two mathematical questions to his professor’s liking.
“It was the ultimate humiliation,” Middleton recalls today. But the successful mechanical engineer whose company now works on unique electrical contractor projects that can range upward in costs to $25 million has more than illustrated his engineering prowess in the 58 years since his bachelor’s degree was awarded.
And he still enters the office of E.G. Middleton, Inc., of Norfolk twice a day at the age of 80 “to upset everyone,” he laughs. Between trips, he goes to the YMCA at lunchtime to exercise, including stomach crunches. “For 35 years, I ran three miles a day; now I ride a stationary bike,” the octogenarian says due to his knee replacement surgery.
At work, he continues to take responsibility to review the company’s charges on each job it performs, and if he sees something he doesn’t like, he sends an employee “a nasty note. They need to know someone cares!” he asserts with his trademark laughter.
In many ways, Middleton is indeed a chip off the old block, as the saying goes. Named after his father who founded the family business in 1920, the junior Middleton started his career at 14 working with a pole line gang, building electrical pole lines. He entered Virginia Tech as a 17-year-old freshman in 1944. As soon as his 18th birthday occurred, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II and was sent to Bavaria where he served as a motor sergeant. “Promotions came fast back then,” he chuckles.
After 19 months as a soldier, he returned to finish his engineering education at Virginia Tech, a university where he says he was accepted because he had a high school diploma and $750 to pay the bills. “I was a country boy with 11 years of schooling, all in the same building, and classes at Virginia Tech were totally over my head,” he admits. But when he returned from his stint overseas, he noted that all of the post World War II students were very serious, including himself.
In 1950, despite Rasche’s misgivings, Middleton earned his sheepskin and returned to Tidewater where he remains today. “I tried to grow the business, acting as an electrician by day and an estimator by night. I learned that projects that involved heavy industrial work had limited competition,” and he moved the company in that direction.
“Dad had an impeccable reputation. I don’t think he graduated high school but he was the soul of integrity and that opened a lot of doors for me. I rode his coattails,” Middelton says about the early days when he was expanding E.G. Middleton, Inc. “Dad would be ill at ease at times because some of the jobs were getting so far beyond his comfort level, and then he would pretend he was just too busy to look at things.” Or his son says he would only allow his father to see “selected parts” of the mail. And again, like father, like son, his dad came into the office until he was 85, just three weeks short of his death.
“Now I am in the same position since my son Rudy is taking jobs I would not have considered,” Middleton admits. Rudy, now president of the company, is the Middleton who has entered the electrical contracting company into $25 million jobs without any of the queasy feelings his father might incur over such high stakes.
The company has evolved to a payroll of 115 to 150 employees but at times, it can be as many as 250, depending on the workload. “We are union. When we need electricians, we cannot just advertise for them in the newspaper,” Middleton explains.
An example of one of his company’s largest and most challenging jobs was acting as a subcontractor for the heavy floating equipment when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was built. “Some of this equipment was never used before, and I would go to engineering conferences to explain what we were doing. I would stay up to 2 a.m. studying to make sure I did not make a fool of myself until I realized no one else knew what was going on. It was a bit awesome,” Middleton acknowledges.
Other large commercial electrical contracting jobs secured by Middleton included facilities for Old Dominion University, a host of area hospitals, Hoechst Celanese, Newport News Shipbuilding, Oceana Naval Air Station, and many, many more.
As his own reputation grew in the Norfolk area, Middleton found himself serving on various boards and volunteer positions. One particularly onerous one was the Norfolk City School Board at the height of integration. Middleton followed Vincent Thomas as the board chair during this particularly intense time. “We had massive busing. We lost 7,000 of the 54,000 students but we were able to keep the city from erupting in a riot,” Middleton recalls.
“I learned a lot, even with the horrendous problems we had, including my life being threatened,” he adds.
When he left that board in 1977 after eight years, he became chairman of the Sentara Healthcare Board for the next two decades. “They two-yeared me to death until 2000,” Middleton says of his 20-year stay. At the time Sentara was a group of six hospitals, seven nursing homes, and 13,000 employees. “Sentara is normally one of the top ten organizations for integrated health care. Early on, they got away from traditional management and moved to out-patient treatment,” Middleton explains.
He became a speaker for the healthcare system and found himself traveling throughout Virginia, up and down the East Coast, and as far west as Iowa and Texas. Among his hundreds of speaking engagements, he spoke to such austere bodies as the sub-committee on Health of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee for the Association of American Medical Colleges and the House Appropriations Committee of the Virginia General Assembly.
His name became a magnet when one was looking for a volunteer. He served as chair of numerous other efforts including the National Congress of Hospital Governing Board of the American Hospital Association’s Committee on Research and Development, the Research and Development Committee of the Greater Norfolk Corp., Virginia Tech’s South Hampton Roads Campaign for Excellence, Virginia Tech’s Engineering Advisory Board, and the Campaign for South Hampton Roads. He also served on several task forces for the Mayor of Norfolk.
He is or has been a member of numerous other organizations such as the Greater Norfolk Corporation, Virginia Wesleyan College, Westminster Canterbury, Bayside Presbyterian Church, Norfolk Rotary Club, Foundation Board of United Way, and the American Hospital Association.
When he turned 75 and found he was still logging in some 30 scheduled meetings a month, he decided “to get off all of them. Then I got bored, so I am back on six now,” says the man who amusingly describes himself as having inherited his father’s hyperactive gene. “Everyone needs to participate. If you don’t like something, then find something else.”
He says that what he has learned from all of his varied types of work is that “you must get rid of your weak sisters. No matter what type of organization you are in, it is no better than the people who run it.” With that said, he adds that the line-up of deans of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering since he re-involved himself “is as good as you will find anywhere.” Paul Torgersen, Wayne Clough, Ed Henneke (interim), Bill Stephenson, Hassan Aref, and Richard Benson are a “cadre of people that one would be hard-pressed to match.”
Middleton has earned three Norfolk city awards: Citation for Outstanding Service in 1977, Business Appreciation Award in 1990, and First Citizen of Norfolk Award in 2002. In 1997, he received Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Outstanding Service Award. He has received several health care awards and was named the 1992 Tidewater Council of Boy Scouts’ “Good Scout.”
Today, Middleton and his wife of 22 years, Elizabeth, who has an art degree from Virginia Wesleyan College, enjoy taking trips that involve art galleries, most recently spending time at New York’s Hudson Valley where there was an exhibit of some 40 Andy Warhol paintings, and another one at John D. Rockefeller’s home. “One of those painting didn’t just cost as much as my home; it cost more than my entire neighborhood,” he muses.
Middleton insists that enough cannot be said about the part Elizabeth has played in any successes he has had. She has not only run the office of E.G. Middleton, Inc., but has also encouraged him and been his chief cheerleader in all things.
He has a daughter, Melissa, who teaches gifted students, in addition to his son Rudy. He is the stepfather to Elizabeth’s three daughters. They have 11 grandchildren and the entire family resides in the Tidewater area.
Class of: 1950
Year Inducted into Academy: 2008