By Maya Flores
The 106-year-old textile engineer discusses his time at Tech and life after earning his degree
The past century has seen unprecedented innovation and development, and the Georgia Institute of Technology has adapted by upholding its motto of “Progress and Service.” One of the alumni that has best represented this sentiment is George Roy Bethune, who – at 106 years old – is also Georgia Tech’s oldest living alumnus.
Bethune was admitted to Georgia Tech in 1932. At the time, his entire class consisted of only 60 students. In 1937, Bethune graduated from Tech with a degree in Textile Engineering from the A. French Textile School, now called the School of Materials Science.
Bethune was born in his grandmother’s house Atlanta in 1914. His father was a traveling salesman and his family moved around a lot during his childhood before eventually settling in Macon where Bethune attended Lanier High School.
Attending Georgia Tech was Bethune’s dream in high school. He had never visited the campus, and had only read about it in the paper, but he had a technical mind. “I always liked to work with tools and I used to love erector sets when I was a young kid, and so it just seemed like Georgia Tech was the place I ought to go.”
But Bethune came of age during the onset of the Great Depression.
“I didn't think I was going to make it [to college],” he remembers “my family didn't have the money to pay the tuition. My mother entered a contest and won the first prize of $50, and they got up another $50 from someplace. I went to Georgia Tech with $100 feeling like I was the richest man in the world. Of course, I paid my way being a co-op.”
To save money, Bethune lived off campus, and stayed with his family near Little Five Points. Every day he would ride the streetcar for a nickel to Tech’s campus. Out of his class of 60 students, Bethune only remembers one other that commuted.
Upon arriving at the Institute, Bethune assumed he would study mechanical engineering. After his first semester, Bethune co-oped in order to pay his way through the rest of school at Goodyear. The tire company had a textile plant in Cartersville, Georgia, and after working several jobs in the plant Bethune decided to switch his major to textile engineering.
During his co-op terms in 1933, he worked 60 hours a week and made 25 cents an hour. Bethune enjoyed switching between his courses and his work: “I was always glad to come back to school and I was always for the school to end and to go back to work. The change was always welcome.”
Bethune looks through his Georgia Tech class of 1937 yearbook.
While at Georgia Tech, Bethune had to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Upon graduation he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. He was only in the workforce for one year before he was called to active duty in 1940. Bethune was supposed to be released from service in December of 1941, but after Pearl Harbor his duty was extended to four more years. During that time, he traveled all around the US to help the war effort.
After graduation, Bethune moved to Cartersville permanently to continue to work for Goodyear, where he has lived for the majority of his life. There he met Ruth Gaines, who he married in 1939, later having three children: Anne, Beth and Bill.
After the war, he returned to Cartersville and his job. In his 40 years at Goodyear, he held many positions, but liked some more than others. “One of the most interesting jobs I had was called a Development Engineer,” he says “I had free range to do whatever I wanted to do! I had three machinery patents while I was on that job.” By the time he retired in 1968, he was Plant Manager.
In the decades since his retirement, Bethune has kept busy. He has desktop computer that he uses to trade stocks – his favorite hobby. He also plays chess with a few regular opponents, and in his words, “I even beat them sometimes.” Up until a recent injury, he regularly played tennis, a hobby he kept up with since his time at Tech, and credits for keeping him strong into his older age.
He continues to reside in Cartersville where has become a staple to the community. Two years ago, he was honored as the first ever Grand Marshall for the town’s Fourth of July parade.
“I've enjoyed my living here” he says. “I still have plenty of friends here, I had about 100 people at my last birthday party. Somehow there were several cakes.”
Now into his second century, Bethune has continued to embody the spirit of Georgia Tech. He revealed his secret to living a long and happy life: “Having good friends is all I know. I'm not lonely!”