Robert Mahan is an engineer with three degrees in the field, yet it’s his passion for the French program in the Virginia Tech Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures that is fueling the first of two major gifts that he and his wife, Beatrice, are making to the university. 

Looking back at the summer of 1979, the Mahans wished they had been fluent in French. How much more they would have been able to communicate with the charming couple from Quebec that they met while bicycling across England.

“I thought it was such a shame that we didn’t speak their language,” said Robert Mahan, currently a researcher and emeritus professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “We had a neighboring country where many people speak French, and we couldn’t even converse with them.”

And that was the spark that inspired the Mahans to learn French. Beatrice Mahan, who worked in institutional research at Virginia Tech at the time, joined him at the weekly French Table, an activity sponsored by Cercle Francophone of Virginia Tech, where they could converse with others in that language. 

Then Robert Mahan sat in on a French class, which inspired him to take another for credit. Within six years he had completed every French language course that Virginia Tech offered. But he wanted more.

Before starting his career, he had gone straight through his higher education in electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he met Beatrice, who majored in mathematics and German. After a courtship, then marriage, they moved to Blacksburg.

For Robert Mahan’s initial decade at Virginia Tech, first as an assistant and then as an associate professor in mechanical engineering, he followed a typical career plan. He taught, conducted research, brought in funding, earned promotion and tenure, and mentored graduate students, many of whom the couple still considers as family.

But then there was the draw to French. Deciding he wanted to earn another undergraduate degree, he petitioned the provost for an exception to the rule that professors cannot seek a degree from Virginia Tech while employed as faculty. Once granted, Mahan spent a decade as an undergraduate French major. By graduation, he had earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa and was his class’s graduation speaker.

“Learning French opened a whole new world to us,” Robert Mahan said. “We began going to France instead of England. We started bicycling in France and completed a couple of sabbaticals there.”

During this time, Beatrice Mahan received her master’s degree from the Pamplin College of Business. She also took French classes that were available to Virginia Tech faculty and staff for free. She even spent a semester taking a course specifically designed to help faculty learn new languages.

But in 2002, when the university offered an early retirement option, the Mahans found themselves in a unique position. Georgia Tech was looking for someone with Robert Mahan’s exact background to direct the academic programs at its new campus in France.

“I wouldn’t have considered early retirement,” Mahan said, “but Georgia Tech was seeking a U.S.-trained professor tenurable in mechanical or electrical engineering who spoke fluent French.”

Beatrice Mahan, who retired from her position as associate vice president for budget and financial planning, said with her husband’s experience running a French exchange program for Virginia Tech, he also filled Georgia Tech’s requirements for someone with international experience.

So the couple moved to Metz, in the Lorraine region of France, and lived there full time for two years. After leaving Georgia Tech, they lived half the year in France and the other half in Blacksburg for the next several years.

“In 2008, we let our apartment in Metz go, and sold our car,” said Beatrice Mahan. “It was time to come home.”

And, ever the Hokie, Robert Mahan found a way to return to Virginia Tech.

“Bob had the opportunity to come back to Virginia Tech in the fall of 2014,” Beatrice Mahan said. “He had done research with NASA for his entire career, and they were working on a new generation of one of his projects. So he came back and has been doing NASA-sponsored research ever since.”

But their service to Virginia Tech goes far beyond their careers at the university. They are making two substantial gifts. The first is to the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, where they hope to see an immediate impact.

 “We’ve had a love affair with France for decades,” Beatrice Mahan said.

“This is the real reason behind our gift,” Robert Mahan said. “The French program at Virginia Tech enabled our enjoyment and our career in France. The professors were terrific, and they made an impression on us. If I had to make a list of the best classes I have ever taken for any degree, the college would occupy the first five or six positions and the department would have the first three or four.”

Their gift will endow a professorship in French literature, language, history, and/or culture whose primary emphasis is on scholarly research. This support will reduce the endowed faculty member’s teaching load, provide summer salary support, and offset research expenditures, publication costs, and travel to professional meetings. 

The Mahans have also included generous support for the College of Engineering in their estate plans. They hope to provide additional faculty or fellowship support to the College of Engineering. The Mahans said they are making this gift because of the support the college has shown to Robert throughout his career. 

“Much of our money came from the College of Engineering and that made everything possible,” he said, “so that’s where the rest of our funds should go. It’s our way of giving back to the place that made our French adventures happen.”

Written and photographed by Leslie King