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First African American to attend Virginia Tech receives honorary degree

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BLACKSBURG (WSLS 10) - On Friday, Virginia Tech held its commencement ceremonies. Donning a cap and gown has been long overdue for Irving Linwood Peddrew III. He was the first African-American to attend any historically all-white four-year public institution in the 11 former states of the Confederacy. More than 60 years after integrating Tech, Peddrew received an honorary degree.

The pomp and circumstance came after he first arrived on Virginia Tech's campus in 1953.

"It's nice to have it culminating in this form with an honorary degree," Peddrew said.

He knew breaking the color barrier would be tough. "It was just the isolation of being the lone black among 3,000 plus students, he said. "Not being able to eat at the cafeteria or stay on campus."

Despite challenges, the cadet remained focused on academics and his love of music.

"I had a jazz program on WUVT the 'Voice of the Techmen'," he said.

After studying for three years at Virginia Tech, Peddrew left to take courses in California. He entered the services before finishing his degree program.

"Eventually I found work at an aerospace company in Santa Monica," said Peddrew. "Then I got my draft notice and wound up in the service," he said.

More than 60 years later, the 80-year-old reflected on the past and the path he's paved for others. In 2003, Virginia Tech honored his legacy by naming Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall after him and the late Charlie Yates, the first African American to receive a degree from the university, during the 50th anniversary celebration of blacks at Virginia Tech.

"I felt super honored because it was such a big thing considering the fact that I wasn't allowed to live on campus when I came to school here," he said.

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In front of nearly 25,000 people, from all walks of life, Irving became only the eighth Hokie to ever receive an honorary degree. During the historic moment, he looked back with few regrets.

"My parents aren't here to witness this event and to bask in the glory and savor the moment," said Peddrew.

He was presented with an honorary Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering during Friday's commencement ceremony in Lane Stadium. He offered words of encouragement to future generations.

"They need to go out and set their mark and aim high," he said. "Realize that many came before them and made sacrifices. They are walking and stepping on the shoulders of those who preceded them."