UT community celebrates legacy of chemical engineer John J. McKetta Jr.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering

More than a hundred students and faculty gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of John J. McKetta Jr., the namesake of the University’s chemical engineering department, at a memorial held Saturday at the AT&T Conference Center. 

McKetta, who died on Jan. 15 at the age of 103, joined UT’s chemical engineering department as a professor in 1946 during a post-World War II period that created a vacuum for talented engineers in the workforce.

During his 70-year affiliation with UT, he served as a professor, department chair, dean of engineering and executive vice chancellor for the UT system. McKetta was an internationally renowned authority on energy and industrial engineering, serving as an adviser to five U.S. presidents and editing a 68-volume engineering encyclopedia.  

At the memorial ceremony, former students and family members spoke of McKetta’s love for UT, referencing his burnt orange wardrobe and his unique Mercedes, which he had custom painted orange and white to reflect the University’s colors. 

 

McKetta was known for his desire to build relationships with students beyond the classroom. Speakers said McKetta held an annual student picnic at his lakeside home and regularly called students to wish them well on their birthdays.

Nicholas Peppas, a chemical and biomedical engineering professor, worked closely with McKetta and said his expertise as an engineer and peer was exceptional. 

“For me and for all of us, he was a great researcher who had a monumental impact on the field, and he was a great administrator on both a personal level and a national scale,” Peppas said. “He put our school on the map. If you told somebody that you studied engineering under Johnny, they would know that you were good.”

McKetta’s memorial ceremony was a bittersweet event, chemical engineering sophomore Michael Guo. 

“There were definitely tears, but it was cool to see how many people Dr. McKetta had a direct impact on,” Guo said. “I was amazed when so many of his former students shared their stories about how he connected with them on a personal level. I feel like all professors should have this kind of passion for extending their relationships with their students.”

Steve Swinnea, a current chemical engineering professor and former student of McKetta’s, described him as a demanding but caring teacher who would lock the door promptly at the bell and regularly held Saturday lectures.

“At the start of every semester, he would say ‘We won’t have a final if I lose 15 pounds this semester,’” Swinnea said. “I don’t believe that ever happened.”

McKetta was a highly regarded teacher, and several of his former students mentioned his ability to get them to think creatively and become passionate about learning. In 2013, McKetta was voted one of the “Texas 10” most inspiring professors in a survey conducted by the Texas Exes. 

“Johnny was somebody that people naturally liked because he had a very open character. He always wanted to make friends,” Peppas said. “He is most famous for his students — all his life, it was his students first.”