Charles E. McMurdo

Charles E. McMurdo (Engr ’29) turned 101 in July. When he attended the University, it had about 2,500 students, he says.

“To start at the beginning, I grew up in a little town in the western part of Montana. There were six in my graduating class. Mother and Dad were from Albemarle County. When they married, they went West. That’s how I happened to be born in Montana.

When I got ready to come East to go to college, Dad arranged with his brother for me to come and live with the family and go to the University as a day student. I came on a cattle train. The routine was, we traveled during the day and in the evening, we’d pull off and unload the cattle into pens where they were watered and rested for the night. The next morning, we loaded them back in and traveled another day. I think it took about five days to get to Chicago. I bought a train ticket there and was in Charlottesville the next day.”

“My first year, I took premed. My Dad had three brothers who were medical doctors from UVA. Dad was a dryland farmer and his crops depended on the weather and the grasshoppers and everything else. He was very anxious for me to be a doctor because the difference was very apparent between doctors and farmers. So I decided that I would try to do that. My biology student instructor was an engineering student and he had a slide rule. I spent most of my time in lab playing with his slide rule. So the next year I switched to engineering.”

“In 1928, I accepted a summer job with C&P Telephone in Richmond. I worked with a man who had a motorcycle and he’d just gotten married and his wife didn’t want any part of the motorcycle, so he sold it to me for $5. In those days, I didn’t have a helmet, I didn’t have any insurance and, let’s see, I didn’t have any driver’s license and the bike didn’t have any speedometer. The only moving violation I ever got in my life was speeding on that motorcycle. I had left the University, crossed the Rivanna River, turned north on Stony Point Road and a motorcycle policeman pulled up beside me. I said, ‘Why did you follow me almost home?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t catch you.’

I went to traffic court and I think the fine was $10. In those days, that was a lot of money and I was real upset about it. There’s no place where you get less for your money than traffic court.”

Charles E. McMurdo

“In 1929, I had a summer job with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. I remember coming into Pittsburgh on my motorcycle. The river was on my right and steel mills were all on my left and it was very smoky. The sides of the steel mills were open and I could see hot metal and sparks flying and things like that. I guess that’s all gone now.”

“I enjoyed my last year at the University. I had Dr. Rodman, James Shannon Miller, Arthur MacConochie and some more. They were excellent teachers and the classes were small and really very intimate. I took thermodynamics under MacConochie. I still would like somebody to explain entropy to me.”

“After I graduated [with a second degree] in 1930, I took a permanent job with C&P in Richmond. I think I was paid $28 a week. That was a few more dollars than the usual because I had two degrees. I retired from there 41 years later, in 1971. In those days, you stayed with a company. If you chose to leave, that was your mistake.”

“During the war, another UVA graduate and I graded papers for Professor Brazeale, I think it was. They were short of help at the University. We had heavy cardboard laundry cases and the professor would fill them with papers—quizzes and things like that. He’d load them on the bus and I’d pick them up at the bus station in Richmond. We divided them up, graded them and took them back to the bus station to send back.”

“The only thing I have now is my age. I have no words of wisdom, no advice and no excuse—and no understanding of how the heck it happened.”

—Interviewed during the Thomas Jefferson Society Reunion by Maura Singleton