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Spring 2002

A Visit with Eugenia Riddick Steck Brings Back Memories of Her Legendary Father

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Eugenia Riddick Steck (photo by Herman Lankford)
A recent conversation with Eugenia Riddick Steck, now 92 and a resident of the Springmoor retirement community in Raleigh, brought to life the strong personality and the legendary career of her late father, Dr. Wallace Carl Riddick Jr., known as “The Father of Engineering in North Carolina and in the South.”

The youngest of Dr. Riddick’s five children, Eugenia shared warm memories and anecdotes about her father, who was the first dean of engineering at NC State.

“Papa was born in 1864 on a plantation eight miles from Raleigh,” she said as she began her reminiscing. “With the end of the Civil War the following year, Grandfather somehow managed to hold on to his land that gave him the means later to help hire a teacher for the neighborhood children since there were no public schools.”

Thus began young Wallace Riddick’s road to academic achievements. In due time, according to Eugenia, he entered Wake Forest College.

“In his junior year, however, he was expelled from Wake Forest for belonging to the Kappa Alpha Fraternity, a secret society forbidden by the college.

Eugenia emphasized that he was determined not to stop his academic pursuits on this account. He immediately sought entrance to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which did not accept any of his credits from Wake Forest.

“The story goes that Papa would not give up and asked to take exams in all the subjects he had already taken,” she said, “He passed them all and so was accepted by the University.”

After earning his bachelor of arts degree in 1885 with the highest grades in his class, he wanted then to become an engineer, but there were no schools in the South that taught engineering.

“One day a passing friend stopped him on the street to tell him about a school in Pennsylvania called LeHigh that taught engineering,” said Eugenia.

“So Papa taught school in Mt. Airy for three years to pay for his tuition at LeHigh, where he also taught the children of teachers to pay for his everyday expenses.”

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Eugenia Riddick Steck stands beside the portrait of her father in Page Hall (photo by Herman Lankford)

Eugenia recalled her father as a person who was devoted to teaching and to his students. One of his favorite expressions, and one she herself heard many times, was “Teaching teachers to teach teachers to teach is one of the most important goals of educators.”

Not only was he an outstanding engineering student at LeHigh, he was also a star athlete, winning four first prizes in sports. Eugenia listed them as the standing high jump, fence vaulting, heavyweight boxing and middleweight. He also played on both LeHigh’s football and baseball teams.

“In fact, Wake Forest college paid his way home at Easter vacation to teach their students how to play football, which was a new game south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” said Eugenia, who remarked that on the basis of this arrangement “Papa claimed to be the first paid football coach in North Carolina.”

In 1880 Riddick received his degree in civil engineering from LeHigh and began a distinguished career in engineering education and professional engineering. Subsequently, he was dubbed “an engineer’s engineer.”

Three years after the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts opened its doors in Raleigh, he was hired to teach mechanics and applied mathematics at the College at a salary of $1,500 a year.

“They say my father was so ecstatic that he immediately wrote to his girlfriend, Lillian Daniel, of Weldon, saying, “Come on and marry me, Lilly. They’re paying me so much money I’ll never spend it all.”

And of course, she did, said Eugenia with a twinkle in her eye.

She remembers her mother telling her, “I married Papa because he was the only man that made any sense when he was talking. He could talk about everything, except cotton growing and what money it brought in, a boring topic of conversation by other men.”

The Riddicks lived in a large, seven-bedroom house on Hillsborough Street across from the campus entrance.

“Our home was open to visits by students who admired Papa’s knowledge and high standards for the engineering profession,” said Eugenia, recalling her childhood days on campus where she explored the grounds, classrooms and laboratories.

She said, laughingly, that she felt like she owned it all because her father taught at the college.

“I would visit Papa in his office every Friday to receive my weekly allowance of twenty-five cents,” she said, noting that if he were busy with students she sometimes waited more than an hour before seeing him.

She called her father “stern, but loving,” a man who was loved and respected by his children, including herself, her brother Wallace, and sisters Lillian, Narcissa and Anna.

“For most of his life, Papa, a very ambitious and accomplished man, put all of his energy, thought, and pride into the college where he taught for 50 years, and in the community where he led many engineering projects that helped in the progress of North Carolina and the South,” Eugenia said as she summed up the contributions of her father, who died in 1942.

She said that Riddick Football Stadium (now a parking lot) was an appropriate memorial for her father, who used to say he served in every position from President of the College to football coach.

“But my great pride is the Riddick Engineering Laboratories building named in his memory,” Eugenia Riddick Steck remarked.

These campus memorials are significant reminders of the legendary Wallace Carl Riddick Jr. — teacher, athlete, civil engineering professor, college president, engineering dean and professional engineer!

- Yionoulis -

See also, Eugenia Riddick Steck, 93.

Wallace Carl Riddick, Jr.
Dean of Engineering 1923-1937

Wallace Riddick was widely known as the “Father of Engineering in North Carolina,” and some records refer to him also (but less frequently) as the Father of Engineering in the South.

Born in Wake County on August 5, 1864, Wallace Riddick attended Wake Forest College and the University of North Carolina, where he received his bachelor of arts degree. He earned a degree in civil engineering at Lehigh University. He joined the faculty of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1892 as professor of mechanics and applied mathematics. He became head of the Department of Civil Engineering in 1895, serving until 1908, when he was elected vice president of the college, and continued to teach civil engineering courses.

In 1916 he was named president of the college. During his administration, he was instrumental in the reorganization of the college (whose name was changed to North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering) into schools with deans in charge to accommodate rapid program expansion and increased enrollment. In 1923 he was named the first dean of the School of Engineering, following his expressed desire to take on this role. During his leadership the school grew to include 12 departments, and the Engineering Experiment Station was established. He retired in 1937, becoming dean emeritus of engineering and professor of hydraulics.

Dean Riddick organized the North Carolina Society of Engineering and the Raleigh Engineers Club.

In 1912 the State College football stadium was named in honor of Dean Riddick, who served as football coach in 1898 and 1899 and was for many years a member of the Athletics Council. In 1951 the Riddick Engineering Laboratories building was named in his memory.

Dr. Riddick was affectionately known as “Pap” to hundreds of former and present students and was also thought of as the “Grand Old Man” of the College. He was much loved for his spirit of fair play and sense of humor and was respected for his learning and services to the institution. All of this was better said by the Class of 1917 when it dedicated the Agromeck to Wallace Carl Riddick in the following terms:

“Teacher of men, wise administrator, friend of the student, and promoter of all things pertaining to the welfare of the college as a whole.”

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