John J. McKetta and an American Century
Written by Maureen Balleza and originally published on The University of Texas at Austin Office of the Vice President for Research website.
The University of Texas formed the department of chemical engineering in 1915 and in 2012, it was named in honor of John J. McKetta, Jr. He was an international authority on thermodynamic properties of hydrocarbons, and served as energy adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush Sr. He also served as vice chancellor of the UT System, Dean of the School of Engineering and has published more than 400 papers and written or edited 87 books. He also recently celebrated his own centennial.
In 1915 newspapers were full of war news — zeppelin bombing raids on London and the sinking of the British liner Lusitania with almost 1,200 passengers. Work was underway on the Panama Canal, women were battling for the right to vote and Pancho Villa was engaged in skirmishes on the border.
On October 17, John J. McKetta, Jr. was born in the hamlet of Wyano, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He was the third child and second son of John J. McKetta and his wife, Mary Gelet, Ukranian immigrants who met and married in the United States. Young John spoke only Ukranian when he started school.
Now, in his 100th year, he is an exemplar of the “greatest generation,” those who came of age during two global conflicts separated by the Great Depression. They shaped the 20th century with their work and innovation, developing the nation into a superpower.
Foundation from family
The best way to understand McKetta’s determination and accomplishment is through the lens of his father. Born in a village in western Ukraine, John Sr. had no formal education and limited prospects. The 14-year-old lied about his age to recruiters for American mining companies, saying he was 16. He gave most of his $25 signing bonus to his father and in 1904, traveled more than 5,000 miles alone to work in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania.
“He was a fantastic individual,” said McKetta. “He couldn’t speak English, never went to grade school. Dad was just extremely bright and didn’t want to brag about it. He wanted to better himself. He wanted to be an electrician because electricity was not quite here but it was coming.”
He signed up for a correspondence course and his grit was a life lesson for his son.
“Many a night he’d be in the little room we had for him and he’d be sitting there with a Ukranian/English dictionary, trying to answer the questions.” He watched his father labor in the coal mine all day and study at night for almost 10 years to complete the one-year course.
The example fueled McKetta’s determination. “The fact that so many times you want to sort of give up a little and you think, you remember how dad worked so hard.”
McKetta had just turned 14 when the market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began.
“Parts of it were just horrible,” said McKetta. “Dad came home one day and said they announced there were no more people working in this particular coal mine, and this coal mine and this coal mine. They were shutting up. And suddenly people were without money. So it was a horrible time for all of us.”
The family had $111 in the bank to sustain them for a while. His father, still working part-time, sought work where he could.
“He would come home with a big smile on his face and a dollar and a half in his pocket or something like that,” he said. “I admired and loved him so dearly for worrying so much about us. “
In the mine
After the love and example of his family, the most formative experience of McKetta’s life was working in a coal mine when he finished high school. He describes it in one word — “hatred.”
“I hated every day but I had nowhere else to go but the coal mines. We had the coal mine and a company store. “
At 17, he joined the line of men waiting for the pit boss to decide who would work that day. Once chosen, they descended about 100 to 600 feet and were assigned their work section.
“There’s a little opening in that area and you’re supposed to dig coal there. Pick and shovel. That was all — you had no energy of any kind. We had no electricity in the mines, no lights. You had a little carbide lamp on your hat and that was all. “
For years, McKetta kept his miner’s hat on his desk to remind him of the experience and maintain his focus on the task at hand.
The hard work shortened miners’ life expectancy and when a miner died, his family had to vacate the company house to make room for his replacement. His own brother Charles, whom he considered the Lodestar of his life, was killed in a mine accident at age 25.
Charles provided the way out when he brought McKetta a book from the library written by Dr. Horace C. Porter.
“What I got out of that book was chemicals were made from coal and a person who did this was a chemical engineer. And I thought, ‘My God, I’d rather be a chemical engineer and make chemicals than dig.’” He traveled to visit the chairman of chemical engineering at what is now Carnegie Mellon. His grades got him in the door but he couldn’t stay without a job. He got a list of universities offering chemical engineering — 54 — and started writing letters. He wrote two or three a night in pencil, with no reply, until the 54th. Hitchhiking to Angola, Indiana, over the weekend, he enrolled at Tri State University the next Monday. The rest, they might say, is history.
A remarkable aspect of McKetta’s early life is how many things he tried, often with great success. He acted in Shakespearean plays, learned to box, taught himself to play the trumpet (badly) and even had a sideline making bleach in the basement of a friend. He notes that “the dollar sign had a lot to do with it.”
McKetta is fond of saying he was born with four aces — his family. In 1943, he met and married his fifth ace, Helen Elisabeth Smith, known forevermore as Pinky. In her, he found the “love affair” he had seen with his own parents. She was at his side for 67 years and the mother of his four children.
After receiving his doctorate, he knew he wanted to work in fossil fuels which meant Texas or Oklahoma. He ended up at UT Austin, influencing thousands of lives and becoming a fierce Longhorn. On this day, he is dressed in UT sneakers and socks and a burnt orange guayabera.
He started teaching at UT in 1946 for the princely sum of $3,400 a year. He left for a brief stint in the private sector before he decided that teaching was his calling and returned to UT. “And it’s been exciting ever since.” Over the decades, he taught and befriended thousands of students, who describe being both “awed” and “terrified” when taking his class.
His first group of students, about 40, had a profound effect on him — 37 were veterans of World War II.
“I was the third youngest in the class and I was the professor,” but he didn’t find this intimidating because they had no college experience.
“None of these would fit in the top ten but they were the best students I ever had. Most of them were married and they had children and they had given up their job before to go into service and they were just damn dedicated that they were going to do something.” College was possible with the G.I. Bill.
“It made our society. You have a lot of governmental programs you don’t care about at all. The GI Bill just had to be one of the best there was. We ought to keep this in mind because these are the things that should happen and can happen.”
And while those first GI students might not have been traditional academic students, by the mid-60s, they were chairmen or presidents of the top ten oil companies in the U.S.
He was a tough teacher who cared as much about life lessons as knowledge, noting “you have to teach things other than what is in the book.” Students arriving late to his 8 a.m. class found themselves locked out. And those who were inattentive found themselves on the receiving end of a piece of chalk or an eraser. But the discipline was softened by the tenderness and interest he felt for them. Over time his motto became “a student you befriend is a friend forever.”
“Early in the game they were like family.” He kept up with them and over time the birthday tradition began, with McKetta calling his former students on their birthdays. On the morning of this conversation he had already called four of them.
The connection with his students has kept him young at heart, hearing about new discoveries in science and engineering. “It’s so exciting to hear what they’re doing,” he says.
As he approaches his century mark, his advice for a good life is simple and succinct: “Just do a good job. Work hard, study and get along with people. I think you have to do that.”
Perhaps the best way to sum up John J. McKetta Jr.’s life is with his own words, from a letter written to Bill Cunningham on Oct. 20, 1969. Simply substitute his name.
“Some day someone will find words that are almost adequate to express how we feel about the wonderful things John McKetta has done for us. Until then, you’ll have to be satisfied with the coal miners’ expression of ‘damn-it-to-hell, if that there John McKetta ain’t the best guy there ever was.’”Tags: John J. McKetta Jr., Maureen Balleza, Office of the Vice President for Research, professor emeritus, Texas ChE, The McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, UT Austin