At a tributary gathering for Norman Hackerman, one of his daughters began her remarks with the apt quotation above, which translates as: Work makes life sweet. Norman Hackerman conducted his seventy plus years of work at a very high level in several domains: chemical research, teaching, and administration. In addition, he conducted his family life and his squash game with equal enthusiasm. His scientific research was remarkable and garnered national awards and recognition. His administrative abilities were remarkable; he was president of two major universities. And, his marriage to Gene Colbourn Hackerman was a loving and fruitful relationship. His energy and athletic skill included his playing squash up to just weeks before his death at age 95. Any one of those accomplishments would make a person unusually successful. For one person to have accomplished all of them made Norman Hackerman a phenomenon. He pursued his personal and professional endeavors with passion, devotion, and extraordinary success.
Norman Hackerman was born on March 2, 1912, and died on June 16, 2007. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents were immigrants from what are now Estonia and Latvia. In high school, he developed an enthusiasm for chemistry, encouraged by three high school chemistry teachers. Upon graduating from high school at age 16, Hackerman matriculated at Johns Hopkins University where he undertook a special six-year program leading to an A.B. in 1932 and, working with Professor Patrick, a Ph.D. in 1935.
He completed his doctorate in the middle of the Great Depression, which meant that there were essentially no professorial jobs offered at that time. So after completing his doctorate in chemistry, he cobbled together a living salary by working three part-time jobs: he taught in the physical chemistry laboratories at Loyola University; he assisted with the freshman chemistry course at Johns Hopkins; and he worked for the Colloid Corporation to develop a process to emulsify or homogenize milk. His experience with homogenizing milk taught him a valuable lesson. The method he and his colleague used to emulsify milk was satisfactory, but his competitors developed more efficient processes. “I learned my lesson,” Hackerman said. “While we were doing it, someone else was doing it better.” The lesson he learned was that it was not sufficient to be active and do good work. Other steps are required for success—commonly being better than one’s competitors. He learned that lesson well.
In 1939, Hackerman took a job with the Coast Guard as an assistant chemist at a laboratory on Staten Island, NY, where he remained until 1941. One significant event during that period occurred on August 25, 1940, when he married Gene Colbourn, who remained his wife and partner until her death 61 years later. In his position with the Coast Guard, Hackerman carried out quality control examinations of incoming shipments of paint and other materials, possibly to the dismay of shippers who were unaccustomed to having shipments turned away after actual quality control checks were carried out by a laboratory. Perhaps this experience helped him develop his trademark ability to say ‘no’ when the quality was not right.
In 1941, Hackerman accepted an assistant professorship at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. He and his wife, Gene, officially lived in Blacksburg for three years, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into World War II, Hackerman worked for the Kellex Company, which was part of the Manhattan Project to create an atom bomb. However, as Gene Hackerman wrote in her family autobiography entitled The Time Has Come
, “the powers that were had decreed that Norm should stay at VPI, to help train engineers and scientists to go to the Pacific… [Soon thereafter] he was going to ‘work for the government’ in New York, for Kellex Corporation. …for fifteen months Norm and [she] stayed together by mail. [She] knew nothing about what he was doing, and only after the war, after the atom bomb was dropped, did [she] learn that he had been working on the atom bomb!”
Many years later, Hackerman called his work for the Manhattan Project “all laboratory.” Foreshadowing his later research interests as a surface chemist, Hackerman worked with several laboratories to solve the problem of corrosion of the nickel mesh used in separating uranium isotopes.
In 1945, Hackerman was offered a position as assistant professor of chemistry at The University of Texas. (Only later, on March 6, 1967, did the Texas Legislature officially change the name to The University of Texas at Austin). Hackerman accepted a pay cut and a lower rank from his associate professor position at VPI, but he wanted to be involved in an active research program. Despite their just-starting-out finances, the Hackermans were able to buy their own house in Tarrytown, and Gene took on the quarter-century task of growing their home on Sharon Lane in Austin into a thirteen-room house with four bathrooms. Early on in their married life, Gene realized that Norm felt “all a house needed was a good bathroom, a comfortable bed, and a kitchen where he could have cake and milk before he went to sleep!” So, she handled nearly all the details of their financial and home life, leaving Hackerman free to focus on research, education, and administration.
Gene was a dynamic individual in her own right who ran the household, contributed significantly to Norman’s administrative success through her activity and tact, and played the major role in bringing up their children. Gene and Norman Hackerman were married for 61 years. Gene Hackerman (nee Coulbourn) died in 2002, predeceasing Norman Hackerman by five years. They had four children: Stephen, Patricia, Sally, and Katherine. At the time of Norman Hackerman’s death, their family included their four children, 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Hackerman’s research was in surface chemistry, particularly the area of electrochemistry, and he became internationally known for his expertise in metal corrosion. Most metals, like iron and aluminum, become oxidized (corrode) when exposed to the atmosphere. This corrosion occurs in automobile bodies, pipe lines, the hulls of ships, and bridge structures and results in immense costs and damage. Hackerman’s work led to a better understanding of the phenomena involved and especially in the development of corrosion inhibitors to slow or prevent this process. Indeed, Hackerman and his group were largely responsible for the development and application of organic compounds used as inhibitors and the mechanism of their action. This work led to many applications in the petroleum and natural gas industries in the prevention of corrosion. His early interest in this field arose when he became intrigued with a 1930s discovery in surface chemistry by researchers Langmuir and Blodgett. These researchers were able to create an environment in which the number of molecules in a surface film could be counted, documenting for the first time self-assembly of molecules. Hackerman attributed this discovery with sparking his own interest in surface chemistry. In his own studies of adsorption, i.e., the measurement of the number of molecules on a surface as a function of their concentration in solution, he pioneered the use of radioactive isotopes to follow the changes in the composition of surfaces. An idea about Hackerman’s style of working with his students can be found in a quotation of one of his students in the introduction to his award of the Palladium Medal in 1965. “He always worked harder than anyone else. He managed by example and otherwise to impart to his students a sense of direction and accomplishment that has stayed with them and has been more valuable perhaps than the chemistry they learned.”
One of Hackerman’s defining characteristics was his ability to do many different things, all of them very well. One constant presence in his professional life was research. During the late 1940s, Hackerman received financial research support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR)—documented as the first federal grant for research awarded in the state of Texas. Hackerman’s research was supported by the ONR until 1970, when he moved to Rice University. Until his death, Hackerman regularly wrote research papers in chemistry and supervised graduate students and post-docs. He wrote 255 scientific papers and supervised many Ph.D. students in chemistry. His publications in chemistry spanned 70 years from 1936, when he was 24 years old, until 2006, when he was 94 years old.
Throughout his career, Hackerman was involved in improving the position of science in Texas and the nation. Giving evidence of his visionary abilities, in 1945 Hackerman and two other chemistry professors formed the Texas Chemical Society, which led to regional chemistry conferences around the country and in particular the Southwest Regional Conference. He chaired the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Advisory Committee on Research Programs that provided grants of state-appropriated funds to foster research at Texas state universities. His emphasis on research, professional communication, and education beyond the classroom influenced the state and the nation. Dr. Larry F. Faulkner, former president of UT and also a chemist, called Hackerman the most important figure in science in Texas because he laid much of the foundation for science in the state.
Hackerman’s research in chemistry was recognized by his serving in many leadership positions and receiving many awards. He received the Whitney Award from the National Association of Corrosion Engineers in 1956. He was president of the Electrochemical Society in 1957-58. He was awarded the Palladium Medal from the Electrochemical Society in 1965. He served as editor of the Journal of Electrochemistry
from 1969 to 1990. He received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists in 1978 and the Charles Lathrop Parsons Award from the American Chemists Society in 1987. In 1999, he was inducted into the Texas Hall of Fame for Science, Mathematics, and Technology. Hackerman was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1971.
In 1993, he was awarded the Vannevar Bush Award by the National Science Foundation to recognize individuals who have “made an outstanding contribution toward the welfare of mankind and the Nation.” Also in 1993, Norman Hackerman was awarded the National Medal of Science “for his seminal contributions in the field of electrochemistry; for his effective and far-seeing vision in higher education; and for his devoted service to the nation and science.” These last awards particularly recognized Hackerman’s extensive service in positions of national leadership concerning science and educational policy. Frequently, when he served on a committee or board, he chaired it. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Hackerman to the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. Hackerman chaired this important body from 1974 through 1980 while he was president of Rice University. During his years on this board, he split his weeks between Washington, D.C., and Texas.
He chaired the Scientific Advisory Board of the Robert A. Welch Foundation from 1982 until 2006, when he was 94 years old. The Welch Foundation was founded in 1954 to support fundamental research in chemistry in educational institutions in the state of Texas, and Hackerman’s leadership for 24 years led to a major strengthening of this field in colleges and universities throughout the state.
Hackerman was also a member of the National Board of Graduate Education, and he was active on the Texas Governor's Task Force on Higher Education. He was the chairman of the board of energy studies for the National Academy of Science/National Research Council Commission on Natural Resources, a member of the Energy Research Advisory Board, and a member of the environmental pollution panel of the President's Scientific Advancement Committee.
During the 1960s, Hackerman became acquainted with Lyndon B. Johnson and used every opportunity to urge the value of support for basic science through research. Coupled with his earnest belief in supporting research was an equally earnest belief in supporting the education of scientists. Technological progress, in Hackerman’s view, was not a simple matter of cherry-picking a problem and telling the scientists to go solve it. Rather, scientists occasionally, almost accidentally, may recognize a practical application in some unexpected process. However, Hackerman believed (and often said) that this recognition depends on their experience, education, and on their ability to select just the right piece of knowledge out of the wealth of information discovered through basic science.
Hackerman’s strong support for basic research affected American science policy throughout his career, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through meetings with President Lyndon B. Johnson and through Hackerman’s leadership on the National Science Board. Hackerman’s belief in financial support for faculty research fostered the strength of academic research in Texas and across the nation.
Hackerman had much more than a utilitarian view of science, elevating it to an art form. Some of his insights into science, technology, academics, and the world were recorded in a series of discussions with Kenneth Ashworth, former commissioner of higher education for Texas, in Conversations on the Uses of Science and Technology
, published in 1996 (when Hackerman was 84 years of age) by the University of North Texas Press. In that publication, Hackerman described some of his view of science and the practical consequences of science as follows:
Science, or the exploration of nature, is another art form, one purpose of which is to improve human comfort and longevity. The other art forms improve culture, increase self-satisfaction, and help us to understand ourselves and live together. And science that is done for its own sake is wonderful for the scientist. Itís fun, itís rewarding, itís fulfilling. Science done for its effect is for the greater populace. The beauty of this is that they are both the same science.
He traveled constantly throughout his career, often flying to Washington, California, or some other destination in the early morning, conducting a meeting or giving a speech, and returning to Texas that night. He would then repeat that experience several times a week. One of his exotic destinations was Antarctica, which he visited several times to visit research stations there. The bleak snowscapes of Antarctica appealed to him. In all, he flew more than five million miles, which is more than the equivalent of 200 times around the equator.
While continuing his research and activities in science policy, Hackerman’s career in academic administration flourished as well. By 1950, Hackerman was a full professor, having quickly progressed through the academic ranks. His administrative service to UT included positions in a range of administrative levels. He served as chairman of the chemistry department from 1952-1961. He was director of the Corrosion Research Laboratory (1948-1961) and dean of research and sponsored programs during 1960-61. He served as vice president and provost from 1961-63. From 1963-67 he served as vice chancellor of academic affairs for UT Austin. At that time, the UT Austin campus did not have its own president. Instead the chancellor of the UT System, Harry Ransom, appointed a vice chancellor of academic affairs for UT Austin to serve as the chief executive officer of the UT Austin campus. In 1967, the UT Board of Regents re-instituted the title of president, and Hackerman served as president of UT Austin from 1967-1970. In 1970, he left UT to become president of Rice University, in which capacity he served until 1985.
Hackerman’s administrative approach included making sound decisions quickly, solving problems, and acting sooner rather than later. One of his early contributions to the Department of Chemistry occurred when Hackerman realized that grants to support faculty research were scarce. He wanted his faculty to have the resources to carry out their work, so “he had the graduate students suck up all the mercury on the floor of the labs. In the tunnels of the chemistry building they found more mercury, gold, platinum, and Jena glass. All these materials were then sold, probably illegally, and $10,000 was raised to support faculty research.” [Southwest Retort
, May 2001, p. 16] This effort made Hackerman a popular administrator to his colleagues in chemistry.
One of the well-known stories about Hackerman concerned the three conditions he imposed before accepting the leadership of UT Austin. He insisted that (1) he would continue to teach an 8:00 a.m. undergraduate chemistry course, (2) he would maintain his research laboratory, and (3) he would play squash at 5:00 p.m. every day. These were not negotiating points; they were simply conditions. He taught, did research, and played squash throughout his career. Hackerman was an extraordinarily energetic man.
Commonly, descriptions of the 1960s on university campuses include the word “turbulent” as a reminder of how dramatically American society and campus life changed during those years. Hackerman’s leadership of UT Austin from 1963-1970 occurred during the most turbulent part of that era. Disruptive campus demonstrations were common; however, Hackerman kept UT Austin operating smoothly. One method that he employed involved being openly accessible to people who may have disagreements. For example, he regularly had discussions with students while broadcasting the interchange over a loudspeaker next to the Tower. Hackerman was always straightforward and clear about what he thought.
One school of leadership advises administrators that the second best answer to ‘yes’ is ‘no.’ Hackerman knew how to make decisions and did not leave people in doubt. Hackerman recalled that Harry Ransom, the chancellor of the UT System in the 1960s, never liked to tell people ‘no’ so they would often leave a meeting with Ransom under the impression that Ransom would support their request when in fact Ransom did not. When he worked for Ransom, one of Hackerman’s jobs was to tell people clearly when the answer was ‘no.’ Hackerman was not mean or unsupportive, but he was good at being clear.
At Hackerman’s memorial service in Austin, a physics professor from Rice related the following story. He had arrived in the president’s office to meet Hackerman for the first time. During their meeting, the secretary intruded to insist that Hackerman take a phone call. Overhearing the conversation, the professor knew that Hackerman was being asked to do something that did not appeal to him. Upon sympathetically remarking, “Well, you can’t please all the people all of the time,” Hackerman replied, “I have never felt the need to please any of the people any of the time.” Being direct was a Hackerman hallmark.
One of Hackerman’s assets was his wife, Gene. Hackerman referred to his wife of 61 years as a full partner in all he had been able to accomplish. He knew that he could be somewhat gruff in his dealings with people, and Gene served a practical role in smoothing some of the rough results at many gatherings and meetings at which she was present.
Although firm and decisive, Hackerman realized that fostering creativity in people requires an institution to tolerate a certain amount of chaos. He was well aware that all people—students, faculty, and friends—are different and respond best to different approaches. Whether in teaching, administration, or personal life, Hackerman realized that one size does not fit all.
After 25 years at UT Austin, Hackerman was offered and accepted the presidency of Rice University in Houston, a position he held for 15 years until 1985. During this time, he achieved his goal of leading Rice into the top tier of research universities. While Hackerman was president of Rice, the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management, the Shepherd School of Music, the George R. Brown School of Engineering, and what later was called the Wiess School of Natural Sciences were created. Hackerman increased by 229 the number of faculty positions and increased the number of endowed chairs from 21 to 60. His successful campaign to increase the university’s endowment and his fiscal management put Rice University on a solid financial footing. When Hackerman arrived in 1970, Rice’s endowment was $117 million. On his departure in 1985, Rice boasted an endowment of over $400 million dollars, nearly quadrupling in 15 years.
Another Hackerman contribution to Rice was that, noting his wife Gene’s affection for women’s athletics in the new Title IX era, he surprised her in October 1978 by endowing in her name an award for the most valuable player on the Women’s Varsity Basketball Team.
Hackerman retired from Rice in 1985 after 15 years as president. Rice gave him the titles of distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry and president emeritus. In the same year, 1985, the UT Board of Regents also named him a UT professor emeritus of chemistry; however, it was not until 2006, thirty-six years after he completed his term as president of UT Austin, that, in an unexpected action that surprised him, the UT Board of Regents authorized the appointment of Norman Hackerman as president emeritus of UT Austin.
In 1985, the Hackermans returned to their home in Austin. Despite his emeritus titles, Hackerman continued to work for the Welch Foundation, for boards and committees in Texas and nationally, and for UT Austin by continuing to teach, to serve on advisory boards, and to give regular, welcomed advice to UT presidents, deans, and other administrators.
Hackerman placed enormous value on teaching non-scientists the value and excitement of science, not because voters influence what government supports financially, but because modern citizens must make decisions about complex issues affecting everyone in the country and the world. A typical Hackerman-ism: “If people cannot recognize hogwash when they hear it or read it, they may think it’s pot roast.” [Ashworth, p. 78] He advocated the creation of a course on nature that would present the scientific view of the world while bypassing the disciplinary borders that are artifacts of the human exploration of nature but do not appear in nature herself.
Hackerman’s leadership roles on science education continued into his 90s. For example, he co-chaired with Marye Anne Fox a major committee of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences on Recognizing, Evaluating, Rewarding, and Developing Excellence in Teaching of Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. A result of that committee’s work was the book Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
, Marye Anne Fox and Norman Hackerman, editors, which appeared in 2003.
We have seen that Hackerman won many awards that recognized his accomplishments in science, science policy, and education. Perhaps even more notable than his winning awards is that Hackerman’s work inspired awards in his name, including the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research (from the Welch Foundation), the Gene and Norman Hackerman Chair in Chemistry (Rice University), the Norman Hackerman-Welch Regents Chair in Chemistry (UT Austin), the Norman Hackerman Young Author Award (for the two best papers published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society
), and the Norman Hackerman Award for Excellence in Biochemistry Research (an undergraduate research award from The University of Texas at Austin).
Hackerman’s unquestioned academic credentials are well known, but fewer know that he had a very active relationship with the business community. Most all of his business connections can be traced to former students.
In the mid 1950s, he consulted with a group of people from the Defense Research Laboratory (now the Applied Research Laboratory) at The University of Texas. This group was planning a research, development, and engineering company with a particular focus on defense-oriented applied technology. This group combined with another startup in Austin in the early 1960s to become Tracor, Austin’s first significant step on the way to becoming the technology center it is today. Tracor grew into a worldwide company and became Austin’s first homegrown NYSE-listed company.
Beginning around this time, Hackerman became a consultant to Mobil Corporation, now Exxon Mobil. He continued as a consultant for many years, a business relationship which came about again because of a former student.
Hackerman consulted for several other companies over the years, again companies started by his former students. But, his longest business relationship began in 1969 with the founding of Radian Corporation. Formed by a group of 10 people, a principal focus of this company was on technology that allowed fossil fuels to be used in power generation while meeting applicable environmental regulations. This company ultimately became a worldwide engineering/science company with a staff of some three thousand. Hackerman served on the board from 1969 until the company was sold in the mid-1990s. In typical Hackerman style, he was not the one to do most of the talking at a board meeting, but when he did speak everyone kept quiet and listened carefully.
Hackerman always liked to point out that the lead-acid battery was discovered in 1872, and it still was the technology of preference in many applications. He was a founding director of a company spun out of Tracor to advance a battery based on lead-acid technology but which offered potential advantages over classical configurations. That company discovered that there were many barriers to entry when it came to modifications of the classical lead-acid battery. His work with several companies reflected his concern about the practical importance of electrochemical energy sources like batteries.
Hackerman’s vita lists his service on 17 boards of directors. Besides Tracor (1984-1990) and Radian (1969-1996), he served on the boards of companies including Columbia Scientific Instruments (1988-1994), Fuel Tech (1987-1991), Electrosource (1990-92; 1993-2002), Horizon Battery Technology (1993-99), Scientific Measurement Systems (1988-1997), and several financial corporations. His domains of influence spanned the academic world and the corporate world.
No biographical sketch of Norman Hackerman would be complete without some mention of squash. Hackerman was an accomplished and devoted athlete and for the last 50-some years of his life, squash was his sport. To say that he played with enthusiasm is a great understatement. He was certainly passionate about playing squash, and a squash game would take precedence over nearly every other call on his time. If an opponent claimed that work was intruding on squash time, Hackerman would respond, “You can work any time.” Hackerman had keys to Bellmont Hall, the locker room, and the squash courts so that he could play at times when the gym and the courts were closed.
In his 90s, Hackerman was slowing down on the squash courts, and near the end of his life his breathing was labored during the games. More than one of his opponents took CPR courses out of concern for the possibility that squash exertion would overcome even Hackerman. His famous condition about playing squash every afternoon as a condition for assuming administrative duties was not an exaggeration of the frequency of his playing. Into his late 80s or 90s, he would sometimes remark to his opponent, “Well, that was my sixteenth day in a row.”
In his 80s and 90s, Hackerman’s mobility was certainly constrained; however, his shot-making skills were very good until the end. He could pick up short hops and balls along the wall and place them accurately. His competitive spirit was extremely evident on the squash court. For years, he would bring protective eyewear to the court and wear the goggles for a while until he decided that they impeded his vision, at which time the desire to win points would overcome concern about eye injuries, and he would discard the protective goggles and continue to play.
Hackerman hated waste. For example, he advocated that pieces of soap could be picked up off the floor of the shower in the gym and kneaded together to make usable bars. His squash wearing apparel witnessed his aversion to waste. Some of his t-shirts were more holes than shirts and might display writing celebrating some event that occurred during his Rice presidency.
He would play a specified number of games at each meeting. During his 80s that number was usually six. However, in his late 80s or early 90s, he had an aggressive case of prostate cancer that required radiation treatment. Although Hackerman was close to superhuman, he was not completely immune from the effects of radiation. While most patients would probably be confined to bed rest as a result of the treatments, Hackerman continued to play squash—but did reduce the number of games. During that time, his body had various blue markings on it that the oncologists had made to direct the radiation. His opponents could assess his recovery as the number of games would rise back to four, then five, then six again. In his last years, his typical number of games was five, but in his last few months, his blood had a low iron count and he had difficulty breathing, at which times he would sometimes manage only three games. The games were always followed by a conversation in the steam room in which he discussed philosophical questions, educational matters, or policy issues, and would invariably show interest and concern for his squash opponent friends. No group of people outside of his family will miss Norman Hackerman more than his squash partners.
Hackerman worked enough for at least five careers: researcher, administrator, teacher, public advocate for basic science, and business consultant. He never stopped working. He was thinking about new projects in battery development as late as one month prior to his death. He taught a freshman seminar at UT through May 2007, and he was scheduled to teach in the fall.
Testimonial after testimonial describes Hackerman as a generous, no-nonsense, cut-to-the-heart-of-the-matter man who was at the same time kind to all, regardless of station in life. Work, friends, and family truly did make life sweet for Norman Hackerman, while he in turn made life better for the many individuals and institutions that he touched. Hackerman’s professional contributions were much honored in his lifetime; and his family and many friends will continue to be enriched by his memory.