A Centennial Colonial

At 100, alumnus Wilbur Garrett, BS ’36 reflects on his time at GW.

A young Wilbur Garrett, BS ’36, chose to attend the George Washington University for many of the same reasons other Colonials have over the years: its reputation for academic excellence and its location in the nation’s capital, which just happened to be his hometown.

“My parents encouraged me to attend a prestigious institution, and the university was just an hour from home,” says the native Washingtonian, who grew up by Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo with his parents and two younger sisters. “I vividly remember my desire to become a civil engineer from the time I applied to attend GW. My goal was to work for the family construction business when I graduated.”

But the country was in the midst of the Great Depression when Wilbur enrolled at the George Washington University’s School of Engineering in 1932; a time when nothing was given and everything was earned the hard way.

“The Great Depression was a stark daily reminder of the difficulty life brings our way at times, but also the importance and the need of bracing one’s self through challenges and hard work,” he says.

Wilbur lived at home during his four years at GW and walked the hour to class each morning to save money. He studied hard and, like many of his classmates, worked jobs to not only to pay for his education, but to help support his family.

“I watched as my parents struggled to make ends meet during this most troubling time, and we learned early on that you have to be diligent in your work ethic in order to succeed,” he remembers. “I was going to make the most of my time at GW, despite the odds.”

When there was free time and work available, the civil engineering major worked for Skinker and Garrett, Inc., the general contracting firm his father, the son of a Virginia farmer, had co-founded in 1917. Had he not been studying at GW in 1933, he may have missed the opportunity to be part of the company’s breakdown crew for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first presidential inauguration in 1933, when the president famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“The firm was removing the Presidential Reviewing Stand in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I was given a brass bar that FDR used to assist his standing at the reviewing podium the day of his first inauguration,” he recalls. At the time, much of the country was unaware that Roosevelt had lost the use of his legs to polio and needed the support to stand on his own.

“I was 19 years of age, a freshman at GW, and I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my GW classmates and professors! It certainly was an experience that would not have occurred had I not been going to school at GW in the nation’s capital.”

After graduating from GW with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he joined the family business for a few years before entering the U.S. Navy in 1939. He was stationed on Samoa when Pearl Harbor was attacked two years later.

“My education at GW was very valuable and key to the construction projects I was involved in during the war,” says Wilbur, who rejoined Skinker and Garrett after WWII ended. “It also assisted me later with managing a large and successful construction firm in D.C.”

Wilbur’s work with Skinker and Garrett kept him close to his alma mater—the company worked on several projects for the university over the years, including renovations to Old Main, constructing buildings on the Mount Vernon Campus, and building the old GW Hospital’s porte-cochere emergency room entrance that received President Ronald Reagan when he was shot on March 30, 1981.

Wilbur’s family has also kept him close to GW.

His daughter-in-law, Associate Provost and Chief Academic Technology Officer P.B. Garrett, has worked for the university for 14 years. His grandson Michael Garrett, BBA ’09, graduated from the School of Business in 2009 and is currently pursuing an MBA at GW. “Seeing my grandson graduate from GW was a very proud moment for me,” he says.

Much has changed at the George Washington University since Wilbur Garrett first stepped onto campus in 1932. The university has experienced unprecedented growth—establishing new schools, constructing new centers of learning, and expanding to three campuses.

“I continue to hear and read about how the university is growing, but it does not surprise me,” Wilbur says. “I think it reflects GW’s efforts to keep pace with the present and future needs of its many students.”

Not everything changes, however.

“Very glad Quigley’s (Tonic) is still there,” he says with a smile. “That was a great place to meet girls when I was at GW from 1932 to 1936!”

It has been nearly 80 years since Wilbur Garrett graduated from GW, but his passion for his alma mater and appreciation for the education he received is as strong as ever.

“The best advice I can offer from my 100 years of life experiences is for all to recognize how blessed you are to have had the opportunity to attend GW, and never forget what was sacrificed so that you could.”

Gray Turner

Read more about Wilbur Garrett and his unwavering loyalty to GW on our sister site, gwimpact.org.


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