Department Named After John J. McKetta Jr.

John J. McKetta Jr. (dressed in his traditional burnt orange) stands with faculty in front of his name on the CPE building at the naming ceremonyThe Chemical Engineering Department in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has been named after former dean of the College of Engineering and chemical engineering Professor Emeritus John J. McKetta Jr.

The naming is part of the $25 million Challenge for McKetta campaign to support students, faculty, facilities and programmatic excellence for decades to come. The fundraiser recently surpassed the $11 million mark, prompting approval for the formal naming by the Board of Regents who wanted to ensure the recognition would be realized within 97-year-old McKetta’s lifetime. The campaign aims to raise the remaining $14 million by 2014.

The John J. McKetta Jr. Department of Chemical Engineering reflects the admiration and affection of hundreds of alumni, friends and corporate partners who wanted to honor McKetta for devoting his career, and in many ways his life, to students. It is the second department, after the Butler School of Music, to be named at UT Austin.

“There is no human being on earth that could evoke the type of loyalty and commitment that John has cultivated in his 65 plus years at the university,” said Roger T. Bonnecaze, department chair, William and Bettye Nowlin Chair and Bill L. Stanley Leadership Chair in chemical engineering. “He is a one-of-a-kind character who makes everyone feel special. His infectious warmth has generated a unique sense of community within the department, creating a chemical engineering family.”

McKetta started out working in the Pennsylvania coal mines, but after stumbling across a book about chemical engineering, he quickly decided he wanted to make chemicals from coal rather than dig it up.  After pursuing his degree, he joined the UT faculty in 1946. He became an international authority on thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons, predicted the first accurate method for determining the temperature profile of a flowing oil or gas well and served as energy advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush, Sr.  He also served as vice chancellor of the UT System, has published over 400 papers and written or edited 87 books.  Despite his high profile success, McKetta has always put students first.

John J. McKetta Jr. waves to the crowd at the ceremony where the UT Austin Department of Chemical Engineering was renamed in his honor“The highlights of my career were all with my students in the classroom,” McKetta said. “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.”

As dean, he pushed to get faculty members promoted for teaching, rather than on the basis of their research. He started a Teaching Effectiveness Committee to provide professors guidance on improving teaching techniques, resulting in a 13 percent increase of honor roll students. In 1995, a retired McKetta added up his total salary from the university and agreed to donate it back to support students if his alumni would match it, which they did.

At 97 McKetta remains very involved. He calls former students on their birthdays after they turn 65, which averages to about three calls a day, and continues to host an annual student picnic, a tradition he and his late wife Helen “Pinky” McKetta started in 1953.  His school spirit is as legendary as his teaching.  He still drives to campus once a week in his car covered with Longhorn stickers and regularly wears burnt orange clothing-including Longhorn golf shoes that he wears even when he is not golfing.

“I’m so proud to have my name associated with this department and university,” McKetta said.  “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.”

The department celebrated with an official renaming ceremony outside of the Chemical & Petroleum Engineering Building Thursday, November 8, 2012. McKetta joined UT President, Bill Powers, Cockrell School of Engineering Dean, Greg Fenves and Department Chair, Roger Bonnecaze to unveil his name on the building in front of alumni, friends, family, and current faculty and students.

See pictures from the event.

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