Class of 1963, BS
Neville Rowland’s life story is the proverbial rags to riches tale.
When he describes growing up in Virginia’s Pittsylvania County on a 43-acre tobacco farm in the 1940s and ’50s, he recalls hunting for the family’s meat. His family grew all of their own vegetables and fruits, and only bought the staples when necessary.
The seventh of nine children, he and his siblings lived in a two-bedroom house where the parents had one of the bedrooms. Not to worry, Neville smiles, since only five of the children were ever home at the same time.
The self-sufficient youngster made straight As in math courses in high school, yet he never recalls bringing home a single book to study. “The only book in my house was a Bible,” Neville explains. His father was a fifth-grade graduate; his mother attended school through seventh grade.
Neville’s high school football coach gave the teenager the idea to pursue a college degree. “I went home scared to death to mention to my family that I wanted to go to college. It took me three or four nights to get up the nerve to mention it at the dinner table. And then, my dad just said, ‘Okay.’ And he never asked me anything more. They paid my way and to this day, I have no idea how,” Neville reminisces.
Selecting Virginia Tech was easy. During high school, Neville had attended Boy’s State and the Future Farmers of America camp at the university. “I was a farmer and I was good at math so entering the agricultural engineering program (now biological systems engineering) was the obvious choice,” he says. But he did not change his academic habits. “I did not study at Virginia Tech either.” His concession to academics was he attended all classes and did his homework.
Neville became a member of the Corps of Cadets, but it was not a cognizant choice. “I knew I could live with the rules. That did not bother me. In fact, I belonged to about 16 different organizations in college and one was the Precision Rifles Drill Team,” a skill he developed as a young hunter. “I lived day to day back then. I was never a planner,” he admits. But his abilities were apparent as he was elected President of the Corps of Cadets and inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa, the honorary leadership society.
When Neville graduated in 1962, he received a ROTC commission in the U.S. Army. He served two years of active duty in Air Defense at Ft. Bliss, Texas, from 1963 through 1964, and was discharged 30 days before his battalion was shipped to Vietnam. He went to work for The Trane Company as a sales engineer in air conditioning for the next five years, working on 100 per cent commission. He left as its number four sales person out of the original training program of 106.
The boy who attended grade school barefoot was now able to purchase stock in Southern Air, Inc., as a full partner in 1970. Southern Air had been his best account while he was at Trane, and the company recruited him. He says he started as a “gopher,” but he helped grow the company from a small residential heating, air conditioning, and plumbing contractor in Lynchburg, Virginia, to a three-state mechanical, electrical, and service contractor with eight branch offices and over 700 employees. The sales increased some 15 percent each year, today totaling more than $72 million annually.
In 1998, Neville took partial retirement, scaling down from his 70-hour work-week to 20. For the past six years he has mentored and advised the employee owned company, and he took his full retirement in January of 2005.
Looking back on his career, he is pleased he made the switch to a small company where the “fruits of the labor were much more visible” and where he “did not have to fight the rat race of the large corporation which did not fit the mold of my personality.”
With his wife of 41 years, Mary, who he credits with changing his life, he plans to enjoy retirement. “Mary is extremely outgoing, and I have picked up on some of her good traits,” he says. They have two children, Kim, a graduate of Salem College, who currently lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina; and a son, Scott, who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech in 1992 and an MBA in 2003. Scott lives in Roanoke, Virginia. They also have five grandchildren.
Neville is a past president of the Rotary Club of Lynchburg and a former District Assistant Governor. He has served as the Chapter President and State Associate Vice President of the Association of General Contractors. At Virginia Tech, he has served as a member of the Alumni Board, the College of Engineering Advisory Board, and he remains an active member of the Committee of 100.
Class of: 1963
Year Inducted into Academy: 2005