Many of us in the chemical engineering community have been inspired by the life of Professor John J. McKetta, Jr. of the University of Texas. Some of us have heard snippets about his start as a first-generation American coal miner who decided to pursue chemical engineering, regardless of having no money to pay for college, writing to every department in the country until Tri-State University, now Trine, offered him a job he could pay tuition with; of how he earned his PhD from our department with Professor Don Katz, then went on to a successful 40+ year career at the University of Texas and advised presidents on energy policies; and of his deep love for his dear wife Pinky.
We were impressed when we learned of his decision to donate back to the ChE department at Texas all his earnings through the years, rounded to $1 million, which was easily matched by his students. Some of us have had the privilege of meeting “Johnny” himself, and been charmed by his manner and energized by his enthusiasm. How lucky for us that his granddaughter, Elizabeth Sharp McKetta, has written Energy: The Life of John J. McKetta, Jr. (https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/mcketta-energy).
If you are a McKetta fan already, you’ll delight in learning more of the details behind the stories, and be regaled by new insights into the man, and the deeply personal stories in this loving tribute. If you have not yet met him, you’ll be fascinated, as the rising sophomore I recently loaned the book to was, by his story, which is not only the story of a strong, generous man but also the story of our profession, as McKetta shaped modern chemical engineering.
All readers will be inspired by his path from humble beginnings to global impact, and by his dedication to his students, whom he still calls on their birthdays. The book is a quick read at about 200 pages, and it’s a book I’ll be rereading through the years to be reminded of what is possible with a strong work ethic, a passion for people, and a positive attitude.
Review by Dr. Susan M. Montgomery (BSE ’84)
G. Brymer Williams Collegiate Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies and Undergraduate Program Advisor in the Department of Chemical Engineering
at The University of Michigan.