April 28, 2016

“Education is a full professor with time to listen.”

That’s the motto that’s guided David Wetzel’s more than 40-year career in academia.

Wetzel, a professor in the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering who is retiring this semester, gave his final lecture on Friday, April 22, to a packed crowd of current and former students, colleagues and friends in the Energy, Coast and Environment Building’s Dalton J. Woods Auditorium.

Wetzel began his career as an instructor of chemical engineering at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., in 1972. After seven years, he joined the faculty at LSU as an assistant professor, and over time, climbed the ranks here to become the associate dean for instruction and a full professor. During his tenure, he’s held memberships with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education, and he’s received numerous awards for his teaching and advising.

In his career, it’s estimated Wetzel has taught more than 3,000 students—including multiple generations of students in one family—and graded more than 30,000 exams. And he’s inspired many prospective engineers to find success.

Bob Spurr, a former engineering student who was enrolled in one of Wetzel’s classes at Catholic University, is one of them. Spurr, along with several of his peers, attended Wetzel’s final lecture and spoke about the impression Wetzel made on his education and his life.

“Dave was my first chemical engineering professor,” Spurr said. “Everyone has that one professor who inspired them, who sparked their interest. He was mine.”

Spurr described how Wetzel could take complex subjects and make them easy to understand. He also praised how Wetzel treated students like “future peers” and “friends.”

And how. “It was snowing in D.C., and the city shut down,” Spurr recalled, adding that he and some friends were studying and there was no access to the food services because of the storm. “We called Dave, and without hesitation, Dave said, ‘Come over. I’ll cook you breakfast.’”

Leslie Hollis, another former student, also spoke about Wetzel’s generosity and his ability to connect with people.

“He came to my wedding, and he gave me the most valuable gift—candid photographs of the reception,” she said. “He really captured the human element, and it’s a treasured possession in my family still today. He understood the technical side of things, but he also understood people.”

His warmth and passion were evident to both his students and his colleagues, said Interim Dean Judy Wornat, who worked with Wetzel in the chemical engineering department for more than a decade.

“He could always tell me about an aspect of a student’s life, or draw me their family tree,” she said. “It was not too much trouble for him to be aware.”

She recalled the times she would walk into the faculty lounge—a place that was supposed to serve as a place of relaxation for professors—and find him grading papers, another example of his unwavering dedication.

“However early I arrived to work, Dave was already there,” she said, laughing. “And however late I left, he was still there getting ready for the next day.”

Other former students and colleagues also spoke about his influence, and John Flake, interim chair of the chemical engineering department, announced the establishment of the “David M. Wetzel Fund” with the LSU Foundation, which will help support a legacy award, such as a scholarship or professorship. As of then, about $40,000 had been collected.

Wetzel thanked the department for that honor, the various speakers for their kind remarks and all attendees who traveled from near and far to participate in the event.

But he didn’t remain sentimental for long. Rather, he used the time to detail—with a deadpan delivery—how things have changed since he started his career (he entered grades by hand on transcripts, and a ticket to the 1960 World Series cost him $2.20); his rules to live by (“Vote,” and “a gift should not need a tag”) and the top 10 reasons he is retiring (his 60th high school reunion is approaching, and he needs to paint his house).

The crowd was even treated to a brief “clicker quiz” about their experiences with art and music, and a handout to help them determine whether they were right or left-brained. (Wetzel, after all, is equally skilled in the arts and sciences, and he appreciates and practices art outside of the classroom).

“Would I do this again?” he asked. “Study chemical engineering again? Teach again? Well, I was encouraged to study art, and I did consider architecture, but yes, I would.”

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For more information, contact Sydni Dunn, communications manager, at 225-578-5706 or at sydnid@lsu.edu. To donate to the “David M. Wetzel Fund,” visit www.lsufoundation.org/wetzelfund.



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