Betty Hahn, Daughter of a VT President and Proud Appalachian

Sep 4, 2019

In 1962, a 35-year-old physicist from Kentucky became president of the university we know today as Virginia Tech. The late Marshall Hahn was a maverick, who brought change to a mostly male, mostly white, southwestern Virginia military school.

Hahn died in 2016. His daughters live on the family property, much of which has been protected from development by conservation easements, which the family put in place decades ago. 

Betty Hahn and Doug Chancey at home

Betty Hahn and husband, Doug Chancey live just outside Blacksburg, in the Ellet Valley, where Betty's parents owned several farms over the years. “My family moved to this town when I was 6 months old."  Her father had accepted an offer to head the physics department, "so we moved into what was then, faculty housing on campus. And ironically our house sat almost exactly where Hahn Hall sits now.”

When Marshall Hahn later became president of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the student body numbered about 6 thousand. Today, it’s pushing 30 thousand. And part of that is due to the vision of its new president. Hahn opened doors to women and to people of color, and that was at a time when there were still signs posted at the Lyric Theater, here directing them to the balcony. His daughter, Betty Hahn, says he not only changed the school, he changed the town. “He saw a great opportunity to turn it into, not just a college--- he had the vision to want to change it into a big research university.” Hahn recalls, he worked hard toward that goal and as the university grew, the town also started growing. “He has everything to do with why this town has gone on the trajectory that it has.”    

Hahn remembers her dad as someone with a lot of ambition and a lot of drive. He got his PhD at M-I-T and in some ways, it was a model for what he wanted to create at Virginia Tech.  And, looking back, it appears he was, not only at the right place at the right time, it was his unique set of skills and personality that set a course for the school. “He was a genius.” Says Betty. “I don’t think there’s any other word for it. He had, more or less, a photographic memory.  He would meet a freshman student, learn their names, and where they were from, what their major was and he was famous for being able to run into them on the drill field, three or four years later and call them by name and remember their majors and ask how things were back in their home town.”

Hometown to Betty Hahn was of course, Blacksburg. Now the family lived in the The Grove, home to University Presidents, in the middle of a college campus, that was growing and changing. “It was a great upbringing for me. I mean it was a different kind of upbringing, but it was a fabulous upbringing, right on campus in that big house.”  She laughs, “I’m sure I was kind of a brat. I guess I thought I was a princess (because) we moved from kind of a normal suburban house into this, more or less, a mansion on the campus. I must have been about 8 or 9. And, my father was good friends with the governor… we were riding around in the governor’s limo and all this. So, I was pretty sure I’d become a princess at that point.”

Actually, she became a professor, a musician and an avid environmentalist. After boarding school in Richmond, she studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Later she got degrees in English and Writing and taught at Radford College. At that point in their lives, her husband, Doug Chancey was pursuing an acting career and they were living out west. And did he become an actor?  “Well, I wasn’t the next Robert Redford or anything.” He says, with a wry smile.

“While Doug looked for acting gigs, Betty taught at San Diego State, in the English department and Women’s Studies and earned a master’s degree in fine arts.  And the whole experience, taught her something else; “Really, it was when we went to California, that I kind of realized that I was an Appalachian. I never knew that. I hadn’t really thought about it.” 

It was one of those revelations about the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you.

“It was partly because, as soon as people would learn that I was from Appalachia, I would start getting these questions that took me aback.  And suddenly, without me even considering that I was Appalachian, I had people ask me if I was the first one in my family to get an education, did I grow up without indoor plumbing? I was absolutely shocked, and it made me aware of my privilege, but also of the really deep-rooted stereo typing of Appalachians. “

The revelation would change her life. In part two of our report, we’ll hear what that’s been like.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.