Robert L. Virgil, the pied piper of the business school

Robert L. Virgil Jr. arrived at Washington University in St. Louis nearly six decades ago as an MBA student. After serving as Olin’s dean for 16 years, he retired in 1993, but continues to serve WashU in numerous roles.

Virgil’s tenure as dean marked a period of vibrant growth for Olin, including the construction of Simon Hall and an endowment surge from $200,000 to $75 million.

“Never before in the school’s 67-year history has its development been such a high priority at Washington University,” Dean Virgil said when announcing the school’s intentions to build Simon Hall. “We in fact can realize the objective set for us in 1981–82 by our Business Task Force, to become nationally recognized for the highest quality in teaching, research, and programs in business.”

Virgil, middle, helps break ground on Simon Hall with Julie Kohn, Doris Kohn, and Gunther Kohn in 1983.

During his tenure, Virgil also initiated the Executive Master of Business Administration program and expanded experiential learning programs, which remain hallmarks of the school today. Dean Virgil viewed the Executive MBA program as “the beginning of selective expansion into executive education.” At the time of the program’s launch in 1983, it was the only program of its kind available in the St. Louis area.

Virgil, a Wisconsin native, told Washington Magazine in 2006 that he might have been prepared by nature for the task of transforming what was then a little-known business school into one competing in the top ranks of institutions in the United States and the world. “I guess I have a little bit of a knack for what my mother used to call herding cats into a gunnysack,” he said. “In management, everyone’s got ideas, often better than your own, so you’ve got to listen to everyone’s ideas and herd them together.”

Besides overseeing the construction of Simon Hall and the naming of the school for John M. Olin, the business professor and dean also served as vice chancellor for students in 1974–75 and as executive vice chancellor for University Relations in 1992–93. He chaired the Faculty Senate Council and several search committees for key administrative posts. Virgil also chaired the Consortium of business schools seeking to increase minority enrollment in MBA programs, and served as a director and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

At Virgil’s farewell dinner in 1993, then-Chancellor William H. Danforth said he’d always thought of him as “the business school’s pied piper, for his ability to rally friends and colleagues and students together for the school. He’s been a model of what a great university citizen should be. He’s been one of the treasures of the university and has left a legacy of one of the great business schools of the nation.”

Video: Bob Virgil recounts how he discovered Washington University in St. Louis and how an MBA turned into a lifelong dedication to the university.

Virgil’s second career as a partner in the Edward Jones investment firm followed his distinguished career at Olin. When he retired from the firm at the end of 2005 after 12 years, Edward Jones had more than tripled in size, with more than 9,000 offices in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Throughout his retirement, Virgil remained involved with multiple civic and educational organizations, including The Magic House, City Academy, and Harris-Stowe University.

Honors and recognition

Virgil has been recognized for his service to Washington University with numerous honors, including the William Greenleaf Eliot Society’s Search Award in 2001. The university’s community service award, the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethics of Service Award, was named in honor of Virgil and his wife Gerry to honor their years of service to WashU and in recognition of his leadership as chair of the university’s Sesquicentennial Celebration.

When Virgil stepped down as dean in 1993, Howard Wood (BSBA ’61) then-chair of the Olin’s Alumni Executive Committee, said, “No single individual that I have ever known got the kinds of accolades from students that Bob did.” Virgil was voted “Teacher of the Year” nine times. Former students, friends, colleagues, and members of the business community raised more than $1 million to establish the Robert and Gerry Virgil Endowed Scholarship to honor Olin’s first couple, by providing a permanent way to assist both BSBA and MBA students in the school.

In 2004, further recognizing Virgil’s impact on Olin during his 16-year tenure as dean, friends raised $1.5 million to endow the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professorship in Accounting and Management, which is held by Mahendra Gupta, who served as dean from 2005–16.

“Bob Virgil’s contribution to the development of the Olin School was both foundational and monumental,” said then-Dean Stuart Greenbaum when the professorship was announced, adding that the progress made in the intervening years was the logical extension of Virgil’s vision and commitment to Olin.

Bob Virgil at the 2016 Presidential Debate at Washington University. Virgil remains active in the Olin and WashU community.

Besides the scholarship and professorship that honor them, Gerry and Bob Virgil shared Olin Business School Dean’s Medal in 1996. Virgil received a Distinguished Business Alumni Award in 2004 and an honorary doctor of laws degree from Washington University in 2009.

Virgil also has received a Distinguished Alumni Citation (1981) from Beloit College, the Distinguished Service to Education Award (1996) from Harris Stowe State College, and other tributes, including the FOCUS St. Louis Award.

SOURCES: Washington Magazine Archives and Business School News

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