AT&T Conference Center — Zlotnik Family Ballroom
Saturday, February 9, 2019
This is the speech President Fenves gave during a memorial ceremony for UT Austin professor emeritus and dean emeritus John McKetta after being introduced by Thomas Truskett, chair, McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, UT Austin:
Thank you, Tom. And good afternoon to everyone here. Welcome to The University of Texas.
This university, this campus, these Forty Acres here in the center of Austin. They were such a big part of John McKetta’s life. A life that was so grand, so filled with history, legend, laughter, passion, and compassion that it could be projected onto the big screen behind us, or packed into the pages of a book. In fact, you’ll hear from his granddaughter Elisabeth, who did write the book about her grandfather. It has the arc and scope of an American folktale. But while folk tales are based in the realm of fantasy, myth and dreams, John’s life was real. It really happened. And The University of Texas was his home. The place that defined him. And he helped define us.
John was a brilliant researcher. His publications and an encyclopedia were seminal in the evolution of chemical engineering as a discipline. His counsel was sought by five U.S. Presidents. If he had simply done the groundbreaking research, published, and advised world leaders, his legacy as a chemical engineer would have been assured. But, as we know, that’s not John’s whole story. Not even a little bit. More than anything else, John was a husband to Pinky, a father and a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and a teacher, mentor, and friend to literally thousands of University of Texas graduates.
He always understood that regardless of what he personally had accomplished, his students would go on to do even more. So, his mission was to teach and to inspire them. And that he did, perhaps more effectively than any other professor at The University of Texas in our history.
In my earliest days as Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, I was often asked — had I met John McKetta?
I hadn’t. But I was hearing so much about him that it felt like I was already getting to know this guy. The stories of the chalk being tossed at sleeping students. The classroom door, locked for anyone who showed up even a minute late. And then the one time Johnny himself showed up late, and he was carried by his graduate students to the nearby beer hall at 8 in the morning. The birthday calls to his former students. And, oh yes, the fact that he was bursting with energy at over 90 years old, having served UT for over half a century.
I had to meet that guy. And, of course, I did.
It was my first Engineering Advisory Board meeting as Dean. It was downtown at the Hilton. Carmel and I walked into a large ballroom filled with guests. Many of you were there. I saw a big group of people. They were all standing close together, forming a semi-circle, huddled. And their eyes were focused at the center of the huddle. And the person at the center was Johnny McKetta. He was speaking passionately, reeling in this impromptu audience of Engineering Advisory Board members and guests. And after a bit, he noticed me, the new guy in town, the new Dean, and he came over. He threw his arms around me. Gave me a big hug. And with his eyes twinkling and a broad smile, said, “I am so glad you are here.”
And he said those words with sincerity and with warmth. He invited me in, and we became friends. He taught me about the university. Gave advice, and more than anything, shared his pride in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and he never let me forget that. And he talked about the belief in his colleagues in the department and his many students.
In my years of knowing Johnny, I saw a man who lived for the present, and he lived for the future. He didn’t worry too much about missed opportunities or regrets. But, I have one regret, when it comes to my time with Johnny. One thing I wish I could’ve done differently.
Many of you here, I know, joined us in 2012, when we officially named the Department of Chemical Engineering for John McKetta. It was a celebration of his lifelong contributions to the field and to our great university. And thousands of his former students had raised over $28 million to make that naming happen.
After the dedication ceremony, there was a dinner, and the speaking program was designed to end early so Johnny could return to Westminster. Well, the program changed.
Completely off the cuff, Johnny, at age 97, took the mic in front of the room with everybody seated for dinner, and he started talking. He started telling his life’s story. That larger than life story. The Great Depression. The coal mines. The welterweight boxing champion. The book that he read that transformed him from a miner to an aspiring chemical engineer. The handwritten letters to 54 college presidents asking if they would admit him as a student, but he didn’t have money to afford college. The degrees he earned at Tri State and Michigan. The love story with Pinky. The World War II veterans who he taught at the beginning of his career here at the university.
This was the life story that I had heard in bits and pieces, but never in its entirety and never from Johnny McKetta. It was deeply moving. And there were tears in the audience. A lot of laughter and a lot of love.
Now, I started this story mentioning a regret. It’s just a little one. That we didn’t have a video camera to record Johnny telling his story. I wish we could have it here today for all of us to see.
But, I guess we all have something better — his imprint on our lives. He helped shape us. He changed us. And we are better because of John McKetta.
So, I’ll end this brief talk with a message to you — Johnny’s family, his friends, his students and colleagues — and I’ll borrow and repeat those first words that he said to me in my new home at The University of Texas:
“I am so glad you are here.”