Spotlight on Faculty: Dr. John J. McKetta, Jr.
When he retired from The University of Texas in 1990 after teaching for 44 years and serving 7 years as dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, Dr. John J. McKetta, Jr. pledged a $1 million gift to the Department of Chemical Engineering. However, he did not stop there. He asked alumni to match the gift, which they did to the tune of $1.2 million dollars.
Now, at age 92, McKetta still serves as Professor Emeritus and Joe C. Walter, Jr. Chair Emeritus of the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. He comes into his office several times a week to meet with students, colleagues, and the occasional visiting grandchild. He also calls each of his former students on their birthday, once they turn 65 (this averages about 3 calls a day). His generosity and devotion to his students have enabled him to maintain great friendships with alumni all over the world. Most of his students work in the industry of chemical engineering, and many teach at universities. He feels immensely proud of their accomplishments.
Having grown up in Pennsylvania coal mining country where he worked in the mines alongside his brother and father, McKetta saw firsthand the dangerous circumstances in which people labored to gather coal to create energy. During his days working as a coal miner, he came upon a book that had been written by a chemical engineer. After reading it, McKetta resolved to study chemical engineering and devote his professional life to finding ways to generate energy most efficiently. This idea became his great motivator.
"All throughout college and graduate school, I kept my coal mining cap on top of my desk. It reminded me how lucky I was to be in school instead of in the mines, and that reminder kept me working hard."
The cap-on-the-desk trick worked. In the past fifty years, McKetta has become an international authority on the thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons, served as energy advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, and has published over 400 papers and written or edited 87 books. He was also a founding member of the National Council for Environmental Balance, as well as President Reagan's appointee to the Acid Rain Precipitation Task Force. Working alongside his students at The University of Texas at Austin, McKetta predicted the first accurate method for determining the temperature profile of a flowing oil well or gas well.
When he came to The University of Texas at Austin as a young professor in 1946, McKetta taught a class made up of a high percentage of World War II veterans. "They were the best students imaginable," he said. "They had worked and fought so hard, and they came to class wanting so badly to learn."
Over the years McKetta developed a set of teaching techniques and rituals that all of his students remember. He did not allow note-taking in class because he wanted students to pay attention to the lecture; however, at the end of each class he handed each student a copy of his typed lecture notes. Also, he gave a 10-minute quiz at the start of every class to make sure that his students had understood their homework assignments and one the reading. His classes started on time every day because he locked the classroom door the second the bell rang. He promised his students that if he were ever late, they would be allowed the day off.
"I was late to class only once," he says, "and even then I swear I had my left foot in the door when the 8:00 a.m. bell rang. But still, because it was the agreement, the students knew that they were allowed the day off. So they picked me up and carried me down the street to Scholz's Beer Garden. It meant that I had to let my 9:00 a.m. students out of class too - I couldn't have taught after that beer session."
At The University of Texas, his school spirit was as legendary as his teaching. He drove orange cars (occasionally with white horns sticking out on either side of the roof), he regularly wore burnt orange clothing (once he flashed his orange underwear to an audience before delivering a lecture at Texas A&M), and twice each year, he and his wife Helen invited all of his chemical engineering students out to a full day picnic at his lakeside home (which included an orange felt pool table, an orange iron bridge across the channel, and an orange seat on one of the toilets).
Recently, McKetta completed his 68-volume "Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing and Design," which he worked on for over 25 years, and to which many of his students contributed as advisors and authors. This encyclopedia stands out from other such resources in that it focuses not exclusively on chemical theory and basics, but on the practical application of chemical engineering fundamentals. No doubt the same day McKetta finished the final volume, he spent part of the morning in his University of Texas office, figuring out which of his former students were due for birthday calls.
Q&A by Elisabeth McKetta, April 2008
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