BSE ChE ’43, MS ChE ’44, PhD ChE ’46
University of Texas, Austin
John J. McKetta, Jr. (BSE ’43, MS ’44, PhD ’46) was born in 1915 in Wyano, PA, a small coal-mining town with a population of 225 on the western side of the state. All the town’s residents then were immigrants brought to the US from Europe to mine coal. His parents were both Ukrainian and had no education at any level. Because his parents and many others in Wyano continued to speak their native languages after they came to America, McKetta didn’t learn English until he started school. After high school graduation, he started working at the local mine. Even though he was scared every minute he was in the mines, he spent the next two years digging coal with a pick and shovel for 25 cents per ton, alongside his brother and father. The work was hazardous and numerous roof cave-ins resulting in fatalities occurred during his time in the mines.
In 1935, his brother gave him a book titled “Coal Carbonization” and he learned about engineers who made chemicals from coal. He knew instantly that he wanted to do this rather than dig it. Within a week, he went to Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, to talk to the head of the chemical engineering department to learn more about the profession. He couldn’t afford to enroll in their program so he set out to find a college where he could work and attend school. Tri-State College (now Trine University) in Indiana was the only college that offered him both opportunities so he headed there in fall 1935. He says he took his dirty mining cap with him to school so he would always be reminded how lucky he was to be getting an education.
After receiving his degree from Tri-State, he came to Michigan to work at Michigan Alkali in Wyandotte, now part of BASF. While working there, he heard that University of Michigan chemical engineering faculty were making chemicals from gas and petroleum and were consulting with a company named “Dow” and that Dow was building a “chemicals from gas” plant in Freeport, Texas. He drove to Ann Arbor in November 1941 to meet the faculty members; the chairman of department, “Great God” Brown (a nickname many students called G.G. Brown), and the “great” Donald L. Katz, who remained McKetta’s senior professor and dearest friend until his death in 1989. They suggested that he pursue a graduate degree at Michigan, so he agreed to enroll in the program for the winter term in 1942.
While at Michigan, he and his doctoral advisor, Katz, developed a set of tables relating to underground temperature and pressure in gas and oil wells that reveal the composition of the surrounding terrain, which are still in widespread use. Of all the many awards and honors McKetta has received in his life, none was as thrilling as being awarded the Donald L. Katz Award from the Gas Processing Association many years later. This award is in the McKetta Library in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas, right under Katz’ photo, which was inscribed by Katz, “to the best graduate student any faculty member could ever be so lucky to have, Johnny McKetta, with my deepest personal and professional wishes.”
Another important person he met while at Michigan was his wife, Helen “Pinky” Elisabeth Smith, of Kalamazoo. McKetta gave her the nickname “Pinky” after she wore a pink blouse on their second date. Helen had received her BA in English from Western Michigan University, then Western State Normal School, and was working as the secretary to the dean of men at the University of Michigan. They married on his birthday on October 17, 1943, after a six-month courtship. He says their marriage “must have been arranged in heaven because we had 69 fantastic wonderful years together before her death in 2011.”
After he finished his doctoral degree, he joined the faculty of the University of Texas’ (UT) Chemical Engineering Department in 1946, where he would stay for the remainder of his career, serving also as vice chancellor of the UT System and dean of the College of Engineering. Throughout his career, he would never forget his coal mining days, and his desire to find ways to find more efficient ways to create energy motivated him in his professional life. He became an international authority on the thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons and served as energy advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush Sr. He published over 400 papers and has written or edited 87 books, including the 69-volume Encyclopedia of Chemical Processing Design. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and in 2009, was selected by AIChE as one of the “50 Chemical Engineers of the Foundation Age.” He also served as president of AIChE in 1962.
After nearly 70 years at the University of Texas at Austin, McKetta was honored by the University in 2012 when his department, with financial support from many of his former students, was renamed the John J. McKetta Jr. Department of Chemical Engineering (McKetta is on the right in the front row in the photo to the left taken at the dedication). This was not the first chemical engineering department named after him though. Fifteen years earlier, John McKetta’s undergraduate alma mater, Trine University, named their Chemical Engineering and Bioprocess Department after him as well.
In spite of all the honors he has received he always found a way to put his students first. “The highlights of my career were all with my students in the classroom,” McKetta says. “I’ve always said to never, ever forget the students. I felt that if our responsibilities to, and concern for the students ever became secondary, we would be violating the trust we accepted as a faculty member.” He says he considers his students his family. At 98, he still calls his former students who are over 65 on their birthdays each year. It probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone that he was selected this year as one of the “most inspiring professors” at the University of Texas.
For more information about Dr. McKetta, please visit the webpage for the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
Article from the 2013 Chemical Engineering Newsletter