WASHINGTON SPIRIT — Summer 2003
   

 

"Herding Cats" and
Repaying a Debt

Gerry and Bob Virgil

When Chancellor Mark Wrighton approached Bob Virgil about chairing the effort to plan the University's Sesquicentennial Celebration, Virgil hesitated only long enough to draw a breath.

By Steve Givens

"I guess by now I'm somewhat of a known quantity around Washington University," says Virgil, M.B.A. '60, D.B.A. '67, a trustee, community leader, former dean of the business school, and partner in the St. Louis-based investment firm of Edward Jones. "I agreed to do it because I was asked. I just have an enormous debt to this institution, and if it thinks I'm the one to do something, I'll do it. When I talked with Mark, I immediately saw the importance of the celebration. It seemed to me it would be a fun and exciting and important thing to work on. It's proven to be just that."

The "debt" that Virgil feels he owes—even though many at the University would quickly note that it's the University that owes a debt to him for his years of service and commitment—began in 1958 when he came to campus fresh-faced out of two years in the U.S. Army, looking to parlay a bachelor's degree and an inkling of an idea about business into a career.

"Washington University gave me the opportunity to grow and develop," says Virgil, who majored in English as an undergraduate at Beloit College in Wisconsin, wanted to be a journalist, and later served as the sports editor of his Army post's newspaper. "I went into the Army thinking I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and during those two years decided that it wasn't a good direction for me, so I decided to get an M.B.A. I wasn't sure why—it just felt right to me."

His instincts were obviously correct. During his time as an M.B.A. student at Washington University, he fell under the influence of Leslie J. Buchan, an accounting professor who had been Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton's dean of the faculties and short-term dean of the business school. Through Buchan's inspiration Virgil became interested in teaching and eventually began doctoral study. He began teaching as a doctoral student and was invited to stay on the faculty after receiving his doctorate. After a number of years, he felt drawn more to administration than to scholarship. Again, he was right on target.

"I wasn't great shakes as a scholar, but I seemed to enjoy the administrative aspects and those challenges," says Virgil, who did a brief stint as vice chancellor for student affairs in the mid-'70s; was acting, and then permanent, dean of the business school from 1977 through 1993; and served as executive vice chancellor for University relations. "Being the dean was exciting and opened up opportunities that I never would have imagined. Washington University, over and over, has provided me with opportunities to grow, develop, and to do things to expand my horizons."

For the past 10 years, Virgil has been a partner with Edward Jones, helping guide the investment firm in the area of management development.

"I never thought that I would leave Washington University, but the opportunity came along after I signaled that I wanted to step down as dean," he says. "It's a great organization with great people. I know I've grown more in the past 10 years than I would have if I had just stayed at the University, post-dean. It's been an opportunity to see the other side of the street."

Virgil has experienced many well-deserved successes during his career and has been recognized for his leadership at the University and in the community, including receiving the "Search" Award from the William Greenleaf Eliot Society, the 2001 FOCUS St. Louis Leadership Award, and an honorary degree from Harris-Stowe State College. Nevertheless, his focus remains on the debt he feels to others.

"Over the past 40 years or so, the people who have been my examples are people like Bill Danforth [chancellor emeritus], Lee Liberman [trustee and community leader], Miller Upton [former University business dean and former president of Beloit College], and Ted Wetterau [business leader]," he says. "They are people who whenever they were asked to do something did it. I feel the obligation to give back for what St. Louis and Washington University have done for us."

The "us" for Virgil is himself and his wife of 44 years, Gerry, and the couple's four children, twins Karen (Weaver) and Kim (Blake), both 43, Kate (Price), 34, and Matthew, 30, as well as their eight grandchildren.

Virgil has been spearheading the planning for the Sesquicentennial for the past two years, and he believes that the many hours of committee meetings and personal visits will pay off in September when the official celebration year commences. Characteristically, he's quick to give credit to others.

"I do think we're going to have a very successful year, a great year, a truly memorable year at the University," says Virgil, who organized the 1992 Presidential Debate at Washington University given one week's notice. "I attribute that success to Mark [Wrighton] because he has taken the Sesquicentennial and its opportunity so seriously. He's been very committed to it, as have other key people on his team. Others throughout the University have seen that commitment and have pitched in.

"I see my job certainly not as directing it or running it but as sort of 'herding the cats into the gunny sack,'" he says, grinning. "If there's one thing that I've tried to have us keep in mind, it is something Bill Danforth said to me. He said that what would really cap the celebration off would be something that leaves an enduring mark so that 25 years from now when people identify something that's valuable and ask where it came from the answer will be: 'It came from the Sesquicentennial.' I think we're going to leave a couple of marks like that."

Steve Givens is the special assistant to the chancellor and the on-campus coordinator for the Sesquicentennial Commission.

 

 

 

 

Peer Review

"Bob Virgil creates success. He is imaginative, clear thinking, focused, and very hard working. Most important, everyone loves to work with Bob; he is the ideal leader for the Sesquicentennial Celebration or any other cause."
—Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth

 

"Just as Bob Virgil has made an everlasting mark on Washington University, so has he on Edward Jones. Since 1993, Bob has been an integral part of our management team, and our organization owes much of its success to his tireless dedication and hard work. From management training to investment representative development and international expansion, Bob's innovative approach has positively impacted virtually every aspect of Edward Jones. I'm certain that, under Bob's leadership, the University's Sesquicentennial will be a tremendous success."
—Doug Hill, Chief Operating Officer, Edward Jones

 

"Bob is a true son of Washington University. I know of no one more committed to anything he undertakes on behalf of Washington University, beginning with his faculty position, through his academic roles and his position as a community leader while a partner with Edward Jones. His commitment is as high today as it was in 1967 when I met him. I cannot imagine Washington University without Bob Virgil's name connected with it."
—Vice Chancellor Emerita Gloria W. White

 

"I approached Bob Virgil as my top choice to chair the Sesquicentennial Commission, and he readily accepted. He is the best person possible, with great and long University experiences as a distinguished faculty member, academic leader, and now trustee. In addition, he is widely respected as a wonderful contributor to our community. He has been creative, enthusiastic, and dedicated in planning a meaningful and significant year of activities that will celebrate our rich history and encourage our progress in the future. I am very grateful that Bob accepted my challenge to lead this important effort."
—Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton