After a distinguished career as a faculty member, extension program leader, graduate program director, administrator, and advisor for the local chapter of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE), Robert “Bobby” Grisso, professor and extension engineer for the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, has announced that he will retire. In June 2021, Grisso will step away after serving 20 years in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Engineering.

“I’ve enjoyed my career tremendously and I think this is a good time for me to walk away. I really appreciated the opportunity to come and work at Virginia Tech,” said Grisso. “This is where I call home and I’ve seen it as a huge honor to serve in a variety of different roles and missions of the university.”

Grisso, originally from Roanoke, Virginia, grew up surrounded by friends and family who worked in agriculture: His uncle owned 350 acres behind Sugarloaf Mountain; his grandparents on both sides were farmers; and his father, a Virginia Tech alumnus, worked as an agricultural economist. Throughout his childhood, Grisso worked on his uncle’s farm every summer and, while he admired the hard work and persistence of the farmers in his life, he wanted to do something more academic with his agriculture background. His yearning to learn about the developing world of agriculture would lead him to the Department of Agricultural Engineering, now known as the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, in 1975.

“Dr. Grisso achieved the type of career that most faculty members can only aspire to. It’s Dr. Grisso’s nature to make a difference, and showing us how to do that is one of his many gifts to us,” said Dwayne Edwards, professor and department head of biological systems engineering. “You simply can’t replace such an experienced and conscientious practitioner of Ut Prosim. He has impacted an amazingly large number of lives through his work as a researcher, an extension specialist and leader, an instructor, an administrator, a mentor, and a professional engineer.”

Robert "Bobby" Grisso headshot
After spending 16 years at the University of Nebraska, he was invited to return to Virginia Tech on an extension/teaching appointment in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in 2001.

Grisso focused on the machinery management and performance pathway in the department and would later earn both his Bachelors (‘78) and Masters (‘81) in Agricultural Engineering. Shortly after completing his Masters, Grisso attended Auburn University to receive his PhD in Agricultural Engineering in 1985 and began his teaching career at the University of Nebraska, where he’d later earn tenure in 1996. After spending 16 years at the University of Nebraska, he was invited to return to Virginia Tech on an extension/teaching appointment in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in 2001. Grisso would work in the new field of precision farming and later describe this transition as one of many full-circle moments that he’s had in his career.

“Dr. John Perumpral was one of the most influential people in my career. He was my major advisor when I was a graduate student at Virginia Tech. Then, fast forward years later, he’d be the person hiring me,” Grisso said.

Another influential person in Grisso’s life was Easley Smith, who passed away earlier this year. “When I was a graduate student, Easley asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him that I wanted his job and he advised me to get my PhD,” Grisso said. “I took his advice and when I came back to work for the department in 2001, I was assigned to work in his old office. This meant a lot to me because he had a huge influence on me and my career.”

His most recent full-circle moment came after years of serving as an advisor and instructor for the BSE Comprehensive Design Project, a two-course sequence that serves as the capstone experience for BSE undergraduate students. These courses allow students to experience working in a team environment and to apply the knowledge they have gained in their coursework to a real-world problem faced by the private sector. During the 2020-21 academic year, the department had seventeen design projects. Grisso noted that this year specifically was special for him because students that he taught in previous years returned to campus as advisors to engage in these projects and work with this group of rising seniors.

“It was very satisfying to watch my career come full-circle. It’s one thing to get a group of students graduated, but to me, it was above and beyond to see students that I’d taught years ago return to help these current seniors. It was a touching moment,” Grisso said.

Robert "Bobby" Grisso sitting on a grassy lawn with two golden retrievers
Grisso with his two golden retrievers at Marby’s Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo courtesy of Robert "Bobby" Grisso.

Along with this moment, Grisso is also proud of the vast amount of publications he’s made over the course of twenty years: he’s co-authored 70 peer-reviewed journal publications and more than 160 extension related manuscripts. His research and extension work are cited in more than 100 trade magazines. He’s received 24 blue ribbons for educational extension recognition from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). From 1995-2008, he served as associate editor for ASABE, Power and Machinery Division for the Transactions of the ASABE and Applied Engineering in Agriculture. He was elected and served as a Board of Trustees member for ASABE in 2007-2009. Then, he was recognized as an ASABE Fellow in 2009 and an Outstanding PM Reviewer and Standard Developer in 2010.

When Grisso walks the halls of Seitz, he catches a glimpse of all of the graduating classes photos from the previous twenty years and feels proud knowing that he made an impact on these people’s lives. He can’t help but reflect on how so much has changed within the department ever since he began working towards his Bachelor’s in the 1970s. Going from five main emphasis areas to two, expanding beyond the agriculture space with enhanced program fundamentals, developing an even split of female and male engineers, and having more diverse faculty members were among the principal changes. He remains excited for the future of the department and engineering technology.

“I was the last class at Virginia Tech in the College of Engineering to be instructed on how to use a slide rule. If a slide rule took us to the moon, I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next as technology in engineering improves,” Grisso said.

His retirement plans include spending quality time with his wife, kids, and dogs, volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and the Builder’s Club in Roanoke, and scratching some hiking and biking trails off of his bucket list. Grisso leaves this advice for students:

“First, find something that you love to work on and have fun doing it. Invest your resources and time in people. Second, set goals, don’t quit, overcome the obstacles and keep getting up when you get knocked down,” Grisso said. “Finally, reflect more, risk more, and do more things that will live beyond you.”

Written by Cameron Warren