McWhirters give $5 million to advance graduate education in chemical engineering

Stefanie Tomlinson
May 09, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Chemical engineering alumnus John "Jack" McWhirter and his wife, Jeanette, have pledged $5 million in fellowship support for graduate students in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Amr Elnashai, the Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering, said, "The McWhirters' gift could not come at a more opportune moment, as the College of Engineering focuses on ramping up its graduate research and education portfolio. Investing in the graduate program in chemical engineering at Penn State is an investment in creativity, discovery and innovation."

He explained that the gift will make a difference beyond the department. "While chemical engineering graduate students and faculty will directly benefit from this generous and motivating gift from Jack and Jeanette, the positive impact will be college and campus-wide."

Andrew Zydney, Walter L. Robb Chair of Chemical Engineering, agreed the fellowships will be transformative to the department. "They will enable Penn State to effectively compete for the best chemical engineering graduate students from around the country and the world."

He added that the funds will allow graduate students and faculty to pursue research on truly cutting-edge initiatives, generating the data needed to effectively compete for the most prestigious federal research grants.

"This gift will be instrumental in our continuing efforts to make the Department of Chemical Engineering at Penn State one of the truly premier programs in the world."

Jack McWhirter grew up in southern Illinois and earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He recalled, "In 1959, no one from there had even heard of Penn State."

Fortunately, McWhirter had some ties at the university who convinced him to choose Penn State for his graduate education. "The head of the chemical engineering department at Illinois and the president of the university were both Penn State graduates."

McWhirter earned his master's and doctoral degrees in 1961 and 1962, respectively.

After graduation, he worked briefly at DuPont and a small, privately-owned company before embarking on a 20-year career at Union Carbide. He eventually was named vice president of the firm.

In 1986, McWhirter took an early retirement from Union Carbide and became a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State until 1999.

Since retiring from Penn State, McWhirter has served as founder and president of Mixing and Mass Transfer Technologies, Nittany BioDiesel and Copper Beech Townhome Communities. The latter is one of the largest student rental companies in the world.

He has received numerous prestigious national awards during his career, including being recognized by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as one of the 100 eminent chemical engineers of the modern era for his invention, development and commercialization of the Unox wastewater treatment system at Union Carbide. He received the College of Engineering's Outstanding Engineering Alumnus Award in 1984 and the Graduate School Alumni Society's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

The McWhirters have been longtime donors to the college. In 2008, they pledged $1.05 million to create the John R. and Jeanette Dachille McWhirter Student Excellence Fund in Chemical Engineering for undergraduate and graduate scholarships.

Zydney said he appreciates their long-term relationship with the department. "Jack was a recruiter at Union Carbide, hiring many of our top undergraduates. He is a past member of our Industrial and Professional Advisory Council, providing important guidance and perspective to our department. And, his contributions as a member of our faculty were just extraordinary."

Each year, the Department of Chemical Engineering hosts a luncheon for the McWhirters and their scholarship recipients, allowing the McWhirters to get to know the students on a more personal level. Jeanette McWhirter said, "It's so interesting to talk to them. They are bright and well-rounded and have many interests outside of chemical engineering. In fact, one of our graduate students just had his second child."

She earned a bachelor's degree from the College of Science in 1969 and was an instructor in the immunology and pathology labs in the Department of Microbiology.

The couple's history of philanthropy at the University also includes a joint gift of $2.5 million to support the Knowledge Commons in the Pattee Library and several scholarships in Athletics.

They smiled, "We support everything Penn State. We bleed blue and white."

The McWhirters' gift will help the College of Engineering achieve its goals in For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students. This effort is directed toward a shared vision of Penn State as the most comprehensive, student-centered research university in America. The University is engaging Penn State's alumni and friends as partners in achieving six key objectives: ensuring student access and opportunity, enhancing honors education, enriching the student experience, building faculty strength and capacity, fostering discovery and creativity, and sustaining the University's tradition of quality. The campaign's top priority is keeping a Penn State degree affordable for students and families.

Last Updated May 12, 2014