Charles Southall has an enduring connection to Virginia Peninsula Community College. In an association that spans decades, he remains dedicated to the College where he gained the footing for a long fulfilling career in engineering.
Southall’s student experience and family influences are the basis for his service today on the VPCC Educational Foundation Board. He was appointed to the board in 2021 and became chairman in January 2023. He strives to make a lasting impact like those who inspired him.
“I want to make a difference,” he said. “The way I see it, if I can pave the way for just one person, I will have been blessed to contribute in the same way that others chose to contribute to me.”
“I think one of the most important responsibilities alumni have is to give back … It’s a critical thing for people who find themselves in senior positions and who have been recipients of many gifts. It's not just a choice. It’s a responsibility,” added Southall, a past Local College Board member with VPCC.
A lifelong Poquoson resident, he enrolled at the College in 1983 after finishing at Poquoson High School. The mechanical engineering technology major and 1985 graduate took advantage of the 2 + 2 program at VPCC. The initiative allowed seamless transition to Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology.
Southall entered a cooperative education program with Newport News Shipbuilding while at ODU. The two-year co-op, which gave him hands-on experience as an intern, ended in 1988 upon his graduation from the university. In continuing work study efforts, he earned a professional engineer license.
College education, invaulable practical training and certifications paid off. At Newport News Shipbuilding, he began as an entry-level engineer and steadily ascended the ranks. He served in roles of increasing responsibility – engineering supervisor, engineering manager, and eventually director of submarine engineering. In 2012, he became the company’s chief engineer for all aircraft carriers, submarines, and other product lines.
Five years later, Southall was named vice president of engineering. He served as an engineering executive until 2020 when he assumed his final executive assignment as program vice president for Ballistic Missile Submarines. Southall retired in July 2022.
His commitment and contributions to his chosen field have not gone unnoticed. Among several awards and special recognition is the 2023 Engineer of the Year Award Southall received from the Peninsula Engineers Council. He confesses being acknowledged by highly respected friends and colleagues stirred his emotions.
“It was humbling. I’ll say that it is something special to be recognized by my peers in that way,” he said.
Southall reflected on the crucial role VPCC played in his life while underscoring his parents’ influence. They instilled a profound appreciation for education.
“My father was a high school graduate who went through the NASA Apprentice School and worked on the Apollo program. He put himself through college coursework at night so that he could advance and contribute to something that he thought was bigger than himself,” recalled Southall, a father of two and proud grandparent. “As a young child, I watched my father do things that were exceedingly difficult. Although he never earned a degree, he is still probably the brightest technically minded individual I've ever known.”
His father’s relentless pursuit of knowledge, despite the challenges of the era, was a driving force for Southall’s family.
“It wasn't just my father who showed me that example. It was my mom. While raising two young sons, she wouldn't give up on her own education. Through my father's encouragement, and her own initiative, she earned her degree from (VPCC) in 1979. So, when it was my turn, this was the place that I came,” he said, noting that his brother, who reached the executive level with a local corporation, is also an alumnus.
Southall doesn’t regret following his parents’ example starting his college education at VPCC. He fondly recalled when his father brought him to campus to enroll. They sat reading the college catalog together to select classes.
“I needed to do something productive with my life. We were going to sit there that day and figure out what that was going to be. So, we did, and it worked … (it’s) a gift I can only repay by giving back,” he said.
“The College has a huge role for people like me, (who are) somewhere between the means with which to go explore four-year education in a traditional sense and a career,” added Southall. “This institution has done remarkably well at filling that gap for people like me. This place fulfills different needs for different people.”
Living out his belief that giving back is not just a choice — it's a responsibility, Southall dedicates time to other organizations. He has served on advisory boards for esteemed universities such as Hampton, Norfolk State, and Virginia Commonwealth, and was in a consulting role at Christopher Newport University during the establishment of its engineering program. Now vice chairman of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s Recreational Fishing Advisory Board, he has also served the American Heart Association and Dolphin Scholarship Foundation.
Through his journey and community contributions, Southall embodies the spirit of generosity and dedication to creating a brighter future, especially for those who, like him, “could benefit from the unique discovery opportunities found in special places like VPCC.”