Beloved Longhorn and Chemical Engineering Legend John J. McKetta Jr. Dies at 103

January 17, 2019
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John McKetta2

John J. McKetta Jr., professor emeritus and dean emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin and namesake to the chemical engineering department in the Cockrell School of Engineering, died Tuesday, Jan. 15 at age 103. Calling UT Austin home for more than 70 years, McKetta is known throughout the university community as one of the warmest, friendliest and most inspiring people on the Forty Acres.

“John McKetta was a seminal figure in the history of The University of Texas,” said UT President Gregory L. Fenves. “A brilliant chemical engineer who advised five U.S. presidents, John was also an engaging and challenging teacher who influenced and inspired thousands of students. He was a friend and mentor to so many in our community — myself included. UT will always celebrate and honor his life and legacy on our campus.”

McKetta’s research contributions established him as an international leader in the field of chemical engineering. As a renowned expert in the thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons, he served as energy adviser to five U.S. presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush), authored 87 books (including editing the 68-volume Encyclopedia for Chemical Processing and Design), was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was named one of the “50 Chemical Engineers of the Foundation Age” by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. At UT, McKetta served as executive vice chancellor of the University of Texas System, dean of engineering and chair of the chemical engineering department three separate times.

“As an engineer, John McKetta was simply a legend — he advised world leaders, wrote encyclopedias and built world-class academic departments,” said Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School. “But it was his extraordinary compassion and his ability to inspire and change the lives of his students that made him a legend at UT Austin.”

McKetta was born in 1915 to Ukrainian immigrant parents and grew up in Wyano, Pennsylvania, where he worked in the coal mines with his brother and father before realizing he would rather be making the chemicals from coal than digging for the coal itself. So, he set out to attend college to become a chemical engineer, hand-writing letters to more than 50 universities for admission.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Tri-State University in Indiana and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, McKetta joined the chemical engineering faculty at UT Austin in 1946. And from that day forward, he was a proud Longhorn — he drove burnt orange cars, wore burnt orange shoes and dressed in burnt orange suits everywhere he went.

“John McKetta was a dear friend and mentor and one of the most generous, knowledgeable and inspiring people I have ever known,” said Tom Truskett, chair of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering. “He will always be synonymous with chemical engineering at UT Austin, and I know that his contributions will continue to serve as an inspiration to our students, faculty and alumni for decades to come.”

From helping professors become better teachers to encouraging more women to pursue engineering, McKetta was dedicated to the advancement of both UT Austin and the engineering field. In 1966, as dean of engineering, he sent a memo to faculty members that ultimately led to the creation of the biomedical engineering program. That same decade saw a near doubling of the engineering faculty, contributing to the growth and prestige of the overall program. In the 1990s, McKetta added up the total sum of his university paychecks over the decades and decided to donate that amount, nearly $1 million, to the chemical engineering department. But he didn’t stop there — he rallied thousands of alumni to match his gift, which they did.

The department recently completed the “Challenge for McKetta,” a $25 million fundraising campaign to advance the department and honor McKetta, and in 2012, the department was officially named in his honor — the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering. On the naming of the department, McKetta said, “I’m so proud to have my name associated with this department and the university. The department has grown and excelled tremendously over the years thanks to world-class faculty and dedicated staff, but none of this would have been possible without the students — they’re the reason we’re here.”

This sentiment sums up McKetta’s approach. He didn’t just teach students the engineering fundamentals — he taught them how to think like engineers and how to solve problems without pencils, paper and slide rulers. He befriended and mentored students well beyond their time in college. Many of them will share fond memories of spending weekend days on his and his wife’s property for picnics. He was famous for remembering his students’ birthdays, calling them annually during his retired years. And perhaps most importantly, he is revered for the way he could get his students to those “light-bulb moments” to realize their potential and path forward. In 2013, he was voted one of UT Austin’s 10 most inspiring professors by the Texas Exes.

McKetta is widely known for his teaching and research in chemical engineering, having received countless awards and recognitions. His name is now a permanent fixture in engineering and across the UT Austin campus, but he will be most remembered for his dedication to students and his enthusiasm for life — and that great, contagious smile.

McKetta is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, as well as thousands of alumni, students, faculty members and engineers around the world. His wife Helen “Pinky” McKetta died in 2011.

The chemical engineering department will host a memorial service to celebrate McKetta’s life on Saturday, Feb. 9, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. Memorial gifts can be made online at giving.utexas.edu/McKettaMemorial, by mail to McKetta Memorial, 200 E. Dean Keeton St., Stop C0400 Austin, TX 78712 or by phone 512-471-3263.