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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Robert Armistead McGaw, who created many of Vanderbilt’s most enduring traditions and served in the University’s administration for more than 30 years, passed away June 30 after a battle with cancer. The author of two popular historical books about Vanderbilt was 89 years old.
McGaw began his Vanderbilt career in 1948 as assistant to Chancellor Harvie Branscomb in charge of public relations, the first person to fill that role. He later served as executive secretary of the Alumni Association and director of information and publications.
In 1964 McGaw was named Secretary of the University by Chancellor Alexander Heard. “Bob McGaw was as authentic a Vanderbilt alumnus as the University has had,” said Chancellor Heard. “His personal commitment and the heritage he leaves were joined with his considerable talents, deep loyalty and outstanding services to the University over many years.”
While Secretary of the University, McGaw continued to be chief editor and designer of Vanderbilt’s official publications. He created the Vanderbilt shield with battlements resembling those of Kirkland Hall across its top and bearing on its face an oak leaf and acorn. He also designed the University’s official stationery that was used for decades. The diplomas he designed for Commencement in 1973 remain in use today. McGaw retired as Secretary of the University, Emeritus, in 1979.
“The Vanderbilt family has lost a great friend and advocate,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee. “No one cared more passionately about creating, celebrating and preserving the rich history of the University. The foundation that Mr. McGaw laid more than a half-century ago continues to inform, enlighten and inspire the Vanderbilt community.”
Robert McGaw was born in Nashville on March 25, 1914, to Samuel M. and Bonnie Howard McGaw. He was educated in Nashville public schools and graduated from Hume Fogg High School in 1931. He enrolled at Vanderbilt for one year before going to work for the Nashville Banner sports department under the legendary reporter (and Vanderbilt alumnus) Fred Russell.
From 1936 to 1948, McGaw worked for the Methodist Publishing House, with time out for service in the Marine Corps during World War II. McGaw served in the South Pacific, the Philippines and China as a celestial navigator assigned to the commanding general. At the Methodist Publishing House his positions included magazine editor, advertising manager and director of personnel and public relations.
McGaw wrote and designed A Brief History of Vanderbilt University (1973) and The Vanderbilt Campus: A Pictorial History (1978). He also had a strong interest in the history of Nashville and became a charter member of the Metro Historical Commission in 1966. He later chaired the Metro Historic Zoning Commission. Other groups where he served in a leadership role included the Tennessee Historical Society and the Tennessee Historical Commission. Friends honored him in 1988 by presenting to Vanderbilt, in his name, a prized collection of early maps of Tennessee. McGaw also was an active participant in the Old Oak literary club, serving as secretary for nearly 40 years.
McGaw had been a member of West End Methodist Church since childhood. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Early McGaw, their son, John Early McGaw of Washington, D.C., and a sister, Miriam Cowden of Nashville, who is an emerita member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust.
McGaw donated his body to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A memorial service for McGaw is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. July 8 at West End United Methodist Church. Visitation with the family will start at 9:30 a.m. that day.
Media contact: Ann Marie Owens, (615) 322-NEWS