While bicycling across England in 1979, Robert and Beatrice Mahan met a charming couple from Quebec who spoke only French. The language barrier inspired the Mahans to make a life-changing commitment: They decided to learn French.

Robert Mahan, the holder of three engineering degrees and a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, spent the next decade earning a bachelor’s degree in French from the university. Then in 2002, he retired, as did his wife, who had been an administrator at Virginia Tech. The couple moved to Metz, France. Georgia Tech, which has a campus there, had hired Robert Mahan to be the new academic director because he spoke fluent French and was tenurable in mechanical engineering.

In 2008, they moved back to Blacksburg, where Robert Mahan later rejoined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2014. Returning to his former department as a researcher and emeritus professor, he resumed a long-term collaboration with NASA.

Now the Mahans are endowing a professorship in French within the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures. They have also included generous support for the College of Engineering in their estate plans.

“The French program at Virginia Tech enabled our enjoyment of France and our career there,” Robert Mahan says. “Engineering made everything possible, so that’s where the rest of our funds should go. These gifts are our way of giving back to the place that allowed our French adventures to happen.” 

Written and photographed by Leslie King