As a young man in 1946, Harold Hankins started working toward a college degree through a Virginia Polytechnic Institute Extension program in Danville, Va. He juggled his studies with a job in a cotton mill, and recalls it as "the most miserable year I ever spent."
Hankins (secondary education, industrial arts '57) completed his first-year classes, but his grades were poor. He did not return for a second year. Surprisingly, that unpleasant beginning led to a remarkably long-lasting connection between Hankins, his extended family, and Virginia Tech.
Though it took longer than he first expected, Hankins did complete that degree, which he credits with preparing him to succeed as an executive and entrepreneur in the electronics industry.
He sent two daughters to Virginia Tech and has helped fund the education of several grandchildren who have enrolled. Hankins has also been an extremely generous supporter of scholarships and other programs at his alma mater.
"We just felt like we needed to give something back," said Hankins, who along with his wife, June, has endowed scholarships within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the Corps of Cadets, as well as a leadership education fund within the corps."If it hadn't been for Virginia Tech, I wouldn't have been as successful as I have been."
Hankins said that during the eight years between when he first enrolled and when he resumed his studies, "I always had the knowledge in the back of my mind that I did not complete what I had started, and that was hanging over me all those years, so I thought 'I've got to get back and at least try it.'"
During the gap in his college career, Hankins worked several jobs, including one in a jewelry store, where he learned to repair watches. While serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he was responsible for servicing ships' clocks.
While working toward his degree on the university's main campus the second time around, Hankins was urged to apply to a newly formed Blacksburg company, Poly-Scientific, by a professor who was aware both of Hankins' need to pay his way through school and his skill working with miniature machine parts.
After graduating, Hankins was hired full time by Poly-Scientific, which manufactured slip rings—devices that allow transmission of electrical signals from stationary to rotating devices—in a facility on Blacksburg's Main Street. Hankins progressed within that company and others in the industry over the course of 35 years. He ultimately owned several firms, including Martin Electronics, a world leader in the manufacture of ammunition and pyrotechnics.
Though he was never a member of the Corps of Cadets, Hankins said, "I would see the cadets everywhere and had a lot of respect for them and that program. It was neat."
Several years ago, Hankins said, he was inspired to get more involved with the corps by the story of a cadet named Adnan Barqawi. A descendant of Palestinian refugees who was born in Kuwait, Barqawi enrolled at Virginia Tech, became regimental commander of the corps, and was voted Undergraduate Student Leader of the Year in 2009.
"We called Adnan and developed a relationship with him, and he became part of the family," said Hankins, who still lives in Blacksburg just a few miles from campus.
Today, Hankins has two grandsons in the corps, David Hankins, a junior management major, and Jason Conder, a junior mechanical engineering major.
In August, Conder's sister, Briley, became the 10th of Harold Hankins' relatives to enroll at Virginia Tech. She is double majoring in hospitality and tourism management and theatre arts and cinema. Briley and Jason Conder were both early-decision applicants and did not submit applications to any other colleges, which illustrates just how strong the bond remains between their family and Virginia Tech—despite its rather inauspicious beginning.