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Oral History with Essex Finney, Class of 1959
Essey Finney, 1956


Part 3

Kennelly: You were a member of the American Society of the Agricultural Engineers?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: What did that involve?

Finney: The American Society of Agricultural Engineers is a professional organization of individuals that have degrees in Agricultural Engineering. There are about 8,000 members of the professional society. Its headquarters is in St. Joseph, Michigan. I joined my senior year at VPI (see page 76 of the 1959 Bugle) and have been a member ever since. They usually have one or two professional meetings a year where members present technical papers of their research findings, their research contributions. The society presents awards to recognize outstanding contributions from members of the profession. They have committees where you can get together to do work that is of mutual interest in certain areas like designing tractors, or developing standards for certain components of tractors, or developing standards for drainage and irrigation equipment.

I participated in that throughout my career. I have been a chairman of committees. I was elected to the board of directors in the 1970s. I was elected a Fellow of the society, which is the highest honor the society can give. And so I have been participating in the professional society. As in any profession, there usually is some organization you should join and participate in, work with other colleagues professionally, and to grow professionally, and share professionally. So ASAE, the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, is my professional society.

Kennelly: And the Society of American Military Engineers?

Finney: Yes, I joined that when I was a student, but I have not participated in that since I graduated. It was more of an honorary society for me, the Society of Military Engineers.

Kennelly: Did you follow through with the military? You didn't go into a career with the military, did you?

Finney: After I finished my Ph.D. degree, I went into the military for two years from 1963-1965. I went in as a lieutenant. When you go to graduate school you can get deferments, that is, when I finished at VPI in 1959, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant. The military will defer you for a period of time as long as you are going to graduate school. Their rationale being the more education that you get, the more beneficial you will be to the military, the more helpful, the greater contributions you could make. I had a deferment from 1959-1963. When I finished my Ph.D. degree at Michigan State, I went into the military service for a two-year military obligation. I was in the Transportation Corps. I did my basic military training at Fort Eustis in Virginia. Then I spent the balance of my two years at the U.S. Army Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver, Colorado where we were working on a special classified project related to the military interest.

So I did spend two years in the military, but I didn't go into combat. You might say my tour was a plush tour. I was in the military; I was in uniform, but most of my activities would be industrial related, related to the military interest, a classified project.

But one thing I must say, when I was in the military, there was a colonel--Colonel William Tisdale, was my supervisor, and I learned something from him that has been helpful to me in life. Colonel Tisdale was a very well organized person in terms of business activities, in terms of industrial activities, and in terms of coordinating a number of activities at one time. The scheduling, the review, the evaluation, and getting the most out of the people that worked for him. He was a very good manager, a very good executive. I learned how to manage from Colonel Tisdale. My first management experience came from him. I must acknowledge that he was a mentor for me.

Kennelly: Speaking of mentors, as far as Tech, who would be the person you had here?

Finney: I would say I had two mentors at Tech. One was Professor [E. T. ] Swink, who was the head of the department and I mentioned his role in my going to graduate school. The other person who I thought very highly of, who was a very good friend and teacher, was Phil Mason. Professor Mason taught farm structures. He was one of the younger faculty members, and I think he was more in tuned to what was going on in Virginia at that time. He was very helpful to me in terms of my academic work and in terms of advice and guidance and going to graduate school as well.

Kennelly: He's still here.

Finney: He's still here? Have you met him?

Kennelly: Yes, he's retired.

Finney: He's retired.

Kennelly: They had an anniversary for Agricultural Engineering, 25 years.

Finney: Yes, if you met him, you will understand his style and his personality for working with people. He's good.

Kennelly: I also saw that you were a student member of the Tau Beta Pi.

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: Which is listed in the Bugle as an association for those who conferred honor on their alma mater by distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as undergraduates in engineering. So I was wondering if you could say how you were nominated for this honor?

Finney: I'm not sure who nominated me, but Tau Beta Piis an honorary engineering society or fraternity, I'm not sure which would be correct. It's an association I guess. But it's an honorary association for those who, as you read, have had an exemplary performance academically and in terms in participating outside of the academic arena. That is, the other societies and activities you would be involved in. So Tau Beta Pi was one of the honors that I received when I was here as a senior. I am also now a life member of Tau Beta Pi, and I appreciate that recognition from my peers. I suppose someone who worked with me and knew me nominated me. So, I appreciate that; that's a great honor.

Kennelly: So you feel your strengths were recognized?

Finney: Yes.

Kennelly: It seems like it.

Finney: Yes, I would say that's why I felt throughout my career that my experience at VPI was a very good experience. I thought I was treated fairly, and I thought that the faculty and the staff and the students accepted me as a student without regard to race or my color.

Kennelly: So there weren't any incidence of some faculty or staff with racial discrimination.

Finney: Not one that I can recall or that I remember. Even when I was here, not one. And that's quite an accomplishment considering the time that we were enrolled here.

Kennelly: Was there any as far as the students go, other than the fact that you were kept isolated?

Finney: No, other than being isolated from campus living or participating socially, none of my experiences with the students led me to believe that they were uncomfortable or that they were treating me unfairly or discriminating against me.

Kennelly: I wondered how life was for you just in terms of Blacksburg as a community or as a town, if you felt comfortable. Could you go to restaurants to get a cup of coffee in Blacksburg, or for a meal?

Finney: Not that I'm aware of. I know one thing, we couldn't go to the movie theatre, except going up to the balcony. In fact, I think one evening, we decided to go down from the balcony, and we were escorted out of the theatre.

Kennelly: So you went down and sat downstairs?

Finney: Yes, and they asked us to leave. If we were not willing to stay in the balcony, then we would have to leave.

Kennelly: Were there a couple of students?

Finney: I think Charlie Yates, and probably Matthew Winston, and I decided to sit somewhere else other than the balcony. That didn't work out. In terms of eating in the restaurants, I really don't remember, and it's probably because we didn't challenge it. And I'm not sure about Squires Hall, the student center across the road, whether or not we could get something to eat there or not. I don't remember that. I know we couldn't eat in the cafeteria.

Kennelly: Was that very upsetting to you when they asked you to leave the Lyric?

Finney: No, we expected it. We just thought we would have a little fun, test it, see what would happen. After a while you know what the traditions are and what's expected, and I guess if you test it and you're successful, you're more surprised than if you test it and it doesn't work because you expect that it probably is not going to be accepted.

Kennelly: Were things like you expected when you came to Tech?

Finney: Yes, they were as I expected. You asked about the campus activities. You know one of the other things is that we couldn't get our hair cut in the barbershop. There was a barbershop over in the student building, Squires Hall. Of course the white students go over there to get their hair cut, but we couldn't go get a hair cut from the barber shop. Now after the barbershop closed, we knew the barbers, so after it closed, we could discretely go into the barbershop and get a hair cut. No one would see us go in to get a hair cut after hours. So that was sort of a little sideline or artifact.

Kennelly: Were the barbers black?

Finney: Yes, the barbers who worked there were black. In fact, the head barber lived in same house with us at Mrs. Hoge's house. I don't remember his name, but he was the head barber, and he lived in Bristol. I'm not sure if he lived on the Virginia side or the Tennessee side. So he would drive up, be here Monday morning, he'd run the barbershop during the week, and stay at Mrs. Hoge's house during the evenings. Then on the weekend, he would go back to Bristol. So yes, I don't remember his name, but all of the barbers were black. The policy was that no black person could go in the barber shop and get a hair cut.

Kennelly: Of course there is a big emphasis in the Corps to have your hair cut. That's catch 22.

Finney: That's correct, but we had to get our hair cut somewhere other than the student union barbershop.

Kennelly: Anything else like that come to mind?

Finney: Well you know it's interesting looking back in retrospect. There was also a barbershop, is this College Avenue?

Kennelly: Yes.

Finney: There was a barber shop owned by a black barber, Mr. Sears, on College Avenue. Well Mr. Sears had a barber shop too, and he was black, of course, and all of his barbers were black. But we couldn't get our hair cut at Mr. Sears barber shop either. Well, the reason is because the traditions. At that time had we gone into his shop to get our hair cut he probably would have lost all of his other customers. We didn't challenge Mr. Sears. We knew what the situation was; he was a very nice fellow. In fact we would go over to his house in the evenings and the weekends to shoot pool for a little social activity. He had a very nice family. It was just the tradition of that time.

Kennelly: Did you make any white friends when you were at Tech?

Finney: Oh, yes.

Kennelly: Were there any people that you kept in contact with?

Finney: For some time after I finished I did, but over the years I've lost contact. Bobby Alderman was in my class, in ag engineering, he was a very good friend of mine. We kept in touch. He did go to Ford Motor Company when he left. So I would see him, and we had contact at ASAE meetings for a number of years. There were a few, but not long term because everyone dispersed and scattered. Occasionally I would see someone on my job or with my work, our paths would cross. We'd have some conversation or go out and have lunch together, but no long-term, deep social contacts other than those.

Kennelly: Did you feel comfortable in class to talk and participate?

Finney: Yes, share class work, homework, and have discussions in class. That was quite normal. There were no problems there.

Kennelly: Now, I'm wondering what you did at the end, after you got out of the military?

Finney: I finished my Ph.D. in 1963 at East Lansing, spent two years in the military in Denver, Colorado at Rocky Mountain Arsenal. There was a member of the ag engineering profession who I had known of for many years. His name was Carl Norris. Carl Norris was the head of the Instrumentation Research Laboratory for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. He either wrote or edited articles in the Ag Engineering Journal, which is the journal of American Society of Ag Engineers on instrumentation. I would read his articles every month because they were always interesting and pertinent, and my interest was instrumentation.

Another factor was when I was in the military service, there were two or three people who would come out to Denver once a year to review some projects we were involved in related to biological warfare. They were members of the Agricultural Research Service at Beltsville. Dr. Quissenberry was one, Louis Wright, and there was another gentleman, but I don't remember his name. I was impressed with their professional knowledge and the way they went about providing advice to the military service. I had discussions with them about the Agricultural Research Service and the Department of Agriculture.

So I decided, when I was in the military service, that I would seek employment at the Beltsville Research Center in Maryland, which is the largest research center for USDA. I wrote to Carl Norris and sent him an application. Carl Norris wrote back to me and said they would be very much interested in me joining his laboratory. So when I finished the military service, I started to work in the instrumentation research laboratory of Beltsville, Maryland.

I started as a research agricultural engineer, and I worked on the development of instruments for evaluating and measuring the quality of agricultural products. When products are marketed, they have to be graded for quality. For example, the degree of wetness of wheat, whether its wet or dry; the protein content of wheat; the degree of the maturity of fruits and vegetables; the color of fruits and vegetables; their textural characteristics, whether they are tender or tough, or hard or soft. All of those things are involved in sorting and grading, and establishing the quality characteristics. So I worked in the laboratory to develop instruments for measuring, sorting, and grading agricultural products for quality.

So that's where I started out, in the instrumentation research lab working with Carl Norris. Carl Norris is one of the finest researchers and individuals to work for that you could have. I worked in the laboratory from 1965-1977. In 1977, I was appointed the assistant director at Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Beltsville had a director and two assistant directors, so I was appointed assistant director, which is a management position, assisting the director and managing the research programs, the laboratories, and the personnel in Beltsville. I did that from 1977-1988.

In 1988, I went to Philadelphia as an associate director of one of the regional areas of the Agricultural Research Service covering West Virginia, Pennsylvania, all of the states up into the northeast. Then in 1989, I came back to Beltsville as the director of Beltsville Research Center. In 1992, I went downtown to the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as the associate administrator for the Agricultural Research Service for the nationwide programs and research. Then in 1995, I retired. So, that's the story of my career.


ARS, 1988, Philadelphia In 1988, Finney was appointed to the Federal Senior Executive Service while he was the Associate Director of the North Atlantic Area of Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA. He is shown here in his office in Philadelphia. Later he became Director of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland and then in 1992 he was appointed Associate Administrator of ARS, the number two position of leadership for the agency. Finally, in 1993, he was appointed Acting ARS Administrator, and he retired from the USDA in 1995.
ARS, 1967 Essex Finney joined the ARS of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1965 as a Research Agricultural Engineer. He worked in the Instrumentation Research Laboratory at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland. He is shown here on the left in a 1967 photograph. With him from left to right is the ARS Administrator, Dr. George W. Irving; the Chief of the Instrumentation Research Laboratory, Carl H. Norris; and the Deputy Administrator of ARS, Talcott W. Edminster. (Note: Before Finney retired from ARS in 1995, he had been appointed Acting Administrator of the Agricultural Research Service).


Kennelly: Good for you.

Finney: Along the line, there were two things that I did in my career that were helpful in my professional advancement. In 1973-1974, I selected to go to Princeton as a Princeton Fellow, as a part of the federal government's mid-career program. I guess being an engineer, my supervisors recognized that I needed some training in management or in public administration. So I went to Princeton as a Princeton Fellow from 1973-1974, and that was a very good experience. I learned about public management, public administration, the history of technology, science, and society, and the role of our economy in world affairs, things of that nature. It was a very good program.

Another thing that helped me broaden my experience was to spend a year in the executive office of the President. That was the last six months of Jimmy Carter's administration and the first six months of Reagan's administration. And you can appreciate that those were two very different administrations, but I worked in the Office of the Science Advisor to the President. I was involved in providing advice to them on agricultural research activities for the nation. So those two experiences were very helpful to me in terms of my career advancement and my career growth.


1974 Princeton Fellow In 1973-74, Finney was a Princeton Fellow in Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Shown on the left in the second row, Essex is a member of the Class of Mid-Career Fellows.
Essex Finney and President Carter President Jimmy Carter greets Dr. Essex Finney in the Oval Office in January 1981. Finney served from July 1980 to June 1981 in the Office of the Science Advisor to the President in Washington. At that time Dr. Frank Press, who later became President of the National Academy of Sciences, was the Presidential Science Advisor.


Kennelly: Very fascinating. Did any of your relatives after you attend Virginia Tech?

Finney: None of my near relatives. I had some cousins who have attended Virginia Tech, but no relatives any closer than that.

Kennelly: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Finney: Let's see, I might mention that while I was here, on the Board of Visitors, at VPI, there was a member from my community, on the Board of Visitors or the Board of Trustees, whatever you call that board. Her name was Mrs. E. Floyd-Yates. I believe Mrs. Yates might have been a teacher at the high school in Powatan while I was there. Her husband was a member of the House of Delegates, so he was politically active in the 1940s and 1950s. That may have been a factor in why she became a member of the board of directors or the board of trustees of VPI. But I never had any contact with her, I never knew what her philosophy or her views were on integrating the university or integrating the colleges and the faculty. But that was just a side note that I became aware of after I got here, that she was on the board of directors, and therefore would have had some influence on the policies of the university or the campus. But I imagine at that time, being one person, her influence probable would not have changed the Byrd machine policy because it was so ingrained within the state. I guess in retrospect it was a great experience, and I felt very well treated, and I think it has been a very important part of my professional growth and my foundation for participating in society. I am very appreciative to the faculty and staff who were here at the time I was here and I would do it again, if I had the opportunity.



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