Thomas Wallace Neff was born in a small South Louisiana town in 1890, but his father ensured he didn’t stay there long.
“My great-grandfather was basically a farmer, and at an early age, much to my great-grandfather’s credit, decided that his son needed to have an education of higher learning,” said Charles Neff, Thomas’ grandson.
When Thomas was 15 or 16, he traveled to Baton Rouge, found a room to rent, and finished his high school career there with the understanding that he was going to college. Charles said that Thomas’ father didn’t have much money, so he made sure his son understood, “You’re going to have to work to put yourself through school, but you must get a degree at LSU.”
Thomas did work throughout his time at LSU. He earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1916, served in World War I, then came back to work at LSU, where he taught physics and mechanical engineering for 43 years before retiring in 1960.
“He liked being a teacher and being with students,” Charles said. He added that when Thomas became eligible for retirement, he requested to remain at the university for five more years. Even when those five years came to a close, it was difficult for Thomas to say goodbye to the university where he had spent his career.
“He was passionate about the school and the football team, as well as education,” Charles shared. “When I was small, that’s all I ever heard, was constantly ‘Young man, get your education. Get your education. Get your education.’” Charles said that because of this mantra, when his grandfather passed away, the one personal effect he wanted was Thomas’ diploma.
Though Charles is not an LSU alumnus, he was inspired to honor his grandfather’s dedication to education and the university through a donation to the College of Engineering’s renovation and expansion of Patrick F. Taylor Hall. “Education was everything to him,” Charles shared. “I felt it would be a tribute to make some contribution toward that engineering school, where he basically spent his whole life.”
Charles’ gift is part of the College of Engineering’s successful $100 million Breaking New Ground campaign. He hopes this donation will help the college be a premier school, and to provide excellent facilities to continue the legacy of good education for engineering students in Louisiana. “And, in a small way, if my grandfather’s name is somewhere on the building, that would just be wonderful.”
Published in Cornerstone Summer and Fall 2014.