VA Tech Benefactor, Fitness Enthusiast Creates Health Science Fellowship at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute

Ray Gaskins was 70 and had put on some pounds when he learned that, as a retired faculty member, he could join the Hampden-Sydney College fitness center for free.

Hitting the gym soon became a three-hour-a-day habit. In two years, he lost 90 pounds.

Now 81, the Virginia Tech alumnus is still in the gym seven days a week, walking a brisk 6 miles on the treadmill, or running barefoot outside when it’s warm and the grass is soft. He worked up to 1,500 push-ups a day at one point.

So when he decided to fund a new fellowship for graduate students at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, it was only natural to name it the Ray A. Gaskins Exercise Health Science Graduate Fellowship.

Gaskins, a longtime Virginia Tech benefactor, now supports two annual $5,000 fellowships for students on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke conducting doctoral research mentored by the institute’s primary faculty. The new fellowship recognizes Gaskins’ devotion to exercise, but students need not be studying exercise science to be eligible.

“I’m keenly interested in the connection between exercise and health,” said Gaskins, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in statistics at Virginia Tech and taught math and computer science at Hampden-Sydney.

Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, met Gaskins several years ago at an alumni event where Friedlander was speaking about the institute’s research. The two immediately hit it off as they shared stories about the science of health and the exciting new work happening in Roanoke addressing some of the most important health challenges of our time. Friedlander was impressed by Gaskins’ deep knowledge and passion for biology and his considerable exercise prowess.

“Ray always attends alumni event talks and lectures and programs at the research institute,” said Friedlander. “He is truly committed to the science of health, and his support for our graduate students demonstrates that deep commitment. We are very fortunate to have such a dear friend and supporter.”

“New awards like this one are great for harnessing and focusing energy on today’s biggest challenges,” said Steve Poelzing, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and co-director of the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health graduate program. “I think the Gaskins Fellowship is an exciting opportunity to attract the next generation of graduate students who are going to transform our understanding of health.”

Gaskins said he’s living proof that exercise is key to good health. He’s so fit, he said, his cardiologist just offered to reduce his cholesterol medication.

“Regular exercise and diet have allowed me to get back to my high school wrestling weight,” he said. He weighed in at about 165 pounds at Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High School in the 1950s.

Exercise, however, is not a late pursuit. In his prime, Gaskins was an avid runner who completed just about every major marathon on the calendar, most of them in a speedy three hours. His fastest was the New York City Marathon, which he ran in two hours and 54 minutes.

When he’s not working out, Gaskins’ mind is on philanthropy. While he and his sisters grew up knowing they would attend college debt-free, he recognized that others would not be so fortunate. He has funded scholarships at multiple colleges, including Virginia Tech, where he is a member of the Ut Prosim Society of university benefactors.

“I’ve reached the philanthropic stage of my life,” he said. “I want that word, ‘philanthropy,’ to be on my tombstone.”

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