BLACKSBURG, Va., May 1, 2009 — Joseph Vipperman, Jr., of Moneta, Va., who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 1962, is a 2009 inductee into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, joining an elite group of 90 individuals out of more than 50,000 living engineering alumni.
From left to right are: Jim Thorp, head of Virginia Tech's Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Joseph Vipperman, Jr., and Richard C. Benson, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering.
This Academy of Engineering Excellence honors the truly exceptional among its tens of thousands of alumni, according to F. William Stephenson, past dean of the college of engineering who created the Academy in 1999.
When Joe Vipperman was four years old, his father was killed in World War II. His mother, who never remarried, became the “solid influence” in the life of Joe and his younger brother. The matriarch was a postal worker in Stuart, Va., a town of just a few hundred, and went on to become the community’s first female postmaster.
She asked her sons to live by a few simple rules: always do your best; always be kind to people; and if you have a choice, always do the right thing. He obviously followed her directives as young Joe graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class.
To help out with the family’s expenses, the teenager worked at the local grocery store where his employer reinforced some of his mother’s set of standards. He recalls a life-long lesson provided to him one day by the store’s owner. “I was putting up eggs from a crate to a carton, but only using one hand. My boss said to me, The good Lord gave you two hands, and I am paying for both of them,’ ” he recalls today. After that good-natured reprimand, Vipperman spent the rest of his life following this counsel.
A third influence in his life also came early. He met Pat, his future wife, in grade school. By high school they started dating, and now she is his spouse of more than 45 years.
As a teenager, Joe says he felt he had the support of the entire community of Stuart, thus making his choice of nearby Virginia Tech rather obvious. His freshman year he shared a dorm room with an aerospace engineering student who, after switching to electrical engineering, seemed to be having more fun than Joe was as a chemical engineer. So he also switched majors to electrical engineering, a discipline he thought at the time to be more suited to his analytical skills. “I had a lousy memory, but if I knew the basics, I could reason things,” he recalls. Joe was active in the Cadet Corps and served on the Regimental Staff his senior year.
After graduation Appalachian Power offered him his first job, but after a month the military canceled all deferments due to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Back in uniform, he was off to a Texas military base. After three years as a lieutenant in the strategic air command of the U.S. Air Force, he returned to Appalachian Power where he would spend a 40-year career in engineering, finance, and various management positions, retiring as its executive vice president of American Electric Power Shared Services, the parent company of Appalachian Power.
His first substantial career move came in 1970 when AEP’s headquarters in New York asked him to relocate to its controllers office, his first step into financial management. “I wanted to go to New York like I wanted a stick in my eye,” the Virginian native says, but he knew he needed to turn this offer to work in the main office into an opportunity.
Unfortunately, his salary did not match the cost of living in the Big Apple, so he and Pat lived in Branchburg, N.J. Consequently, he spent two hours each way commuting by train, forcing him into 12 to 14 hour days. But within two years, he was named the administrative assistant to the president and MIT also named him a Sloan Fellow, allowing him to attend the prestigious university and obtain his master’s degree in management. With his MBA in hand, he was promoted to the company’s controller. (Later, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Averett University.)
He soon found that the late 1970s was a difficult time to be AEP’s financial wizard as the oil embargo had placed a tremendous financial strain on all utilities. The company was involved in some huge construction projects with a tremendous number of capital needs. Coal had increased from a low of $8 to $10 a ton to almost five times the amount, hitting $40 or $50 a ton, and “there was no way to recover the expenses,” Vipperman recalls. “I had lots of sleepless nights dealing with regulatory bodies in order to defend rate increases.
“It was like taking oral exams, but at stake was the entire company and its stockholders. Eventually, I started to treat it more like a chess game, and there were more checkmates than checkmated. To raise rates one penny, you’d have thought it was robbery.”
Vipperman credits AEP’s “long history of good management and its leaders’ focus on forward looking research areas that were extremely beneficial to the business side.” Its erection of 765-volt power lines saved it from building multiple, smaller lines. “Our research and development in generation had enormous payoffs down the road. We also located plants near coal mines to keep transportation costs low.”
Never in the same job for more than three or four years, Vipperman found his four-decade career with AEP never got stale. “I was always learning,” he says. Through two different assignments, he spent a total of 16 plus years in the Columbus, Ohio headquarters where AEP moved to from New York, with a period of six years back in Roanoke as president of AEP’s Appalachian Power operating subsidiary. When he retired, the Vippermans moved to their current home on Smith Mountain Lake as the Commonwealth has always held their heartstrings.
Over the years, he has spent many volunteer hours with his alma mater, serving on the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board twice, the Electrical Engineering Advisory Committee, as well as co-chair of the Alumni Task Force responsible for launching the University’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). AEP announced a $1 million commitment to ICTAS in 2008 in honor of Vipperman. He currently serves on the Cadet Corp Development Council, and as the Virginia Tech Foundation representative on the Reynolds Homestead Foundation Board.
Among his numerous civic positions, he was appointed by Governor Douglas Wilder as a member of the Industrial Advisory Board to the state, and served as chair of this board under Governor George Allen. He was later named a charter member of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. His past positions also include chair of the following: Southwest Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority Advisory Board, Roanoke Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Tech Foundation Audit Committee, Roanoke United Way, Virginia Coalition for Energy and Economic Development, and the Averett Board of Trustees. He was the president of the SouthEastern Electric Exchange, secretary of the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, and a member of the West Virginia Business Roundtable.
He serves on the board of directors of Shenandoah Life Insurance Co., the James River Coal Co., and the Friendship Retirement and the Patrick County Educational Foundation. He is a Presbyterian Elder and serves as the Parish Council Vice President of Trinity Ecumenical Parish.
The Vippermans have a daughter, Joannah Saarmaa, living in Boston, Mass., and a son Robert, residing in Hickory, N.C.