Three decades of alumni remember Dr. John Walkup
February 4, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
(above, in 1967) challenged generations of students to achieve
their best. "When I think about Centre," says alum Tom Rich '60,
"I think about Dr. Walkup."
Jeffrey Rush '74 says that Walkup "didn’t tolerate fools and was
merciless to the lazy, but he was a committed teacher and fiercely
devoted to his students."
"Gruff, rough, and tough on the outside was John Harper Walkup, professor of chemistry; on the inside he was helpful and hale, more good-hearted than he would admit.”
In his book The Cufflinks of Ozymandias, this is how legendary Centre English professor Paul Cantrell described Dr. John Walkup, who taught chemistry at Centre College from 1945 until 1980.
Jeffrey Rush '74 says that Walkup was a "keenly intelligent, warmly human and compassionate mentor that resided within a crusty, intimidating and sometimes profane exterior. He didn’t tolerate fools and was merciless to the lazy, but he was a committed teacher and fiercely devoted to his students."
Walkup told Rush that he grew up on a farm in Mississippi and taught high school after two years of college.
"He then became interested in chemistry and bought a general chemistry text," Rush says.
"He worked his way through the book on his own and wrote to the publishers to get a teacher’s supplement that gave the answers to the questions at the end of each chapter. He taught himself enough chemistry to gain entrance to a graduate program in chemistry and quickly earned his PhD. He had a very successful career in industry and held several key patents in the paper-making process.
"He could have continued in industry, but I do believe that he loved teaching and was following his heart when came to Centre College."
During Homecoming weekend 2009, Walkup’s name came up in several separate conversations—inspiring a call for sayings, stories, anecdotes, and remembrances of this distinctive educator.
Like Rush, dozens of alumni were able to see Walkup for the passionate, if sometimes earthy, educator he was. Here are some of their stories.
Scott Landrum, Class of 1976
I was a chemistry major with Dr. Walkup as my advisor. I struggled with the major, but it got me into grad school—I have been a hospital CEO for 30 years. Anyway, during my senior year, Dr. Walkup put his arm around me at the front entrance of Young Hall and said, "Scott, what does your dad do? Maybe you ought to think about going into business with him."
Jack W. Fisher, Class of 1965
Dr. Walkup waited for everyone to come in from the cold, shed their coats and get seated. It was unusually cold for Kentucky, at about 20 below zero. He opened the class with, "Everyone gather around Miss Betty Bohon. She's the hottest thing in the room. Betty smiled. Of course she blushed some, but we all knew this was just his way of getting our attention.
In today's climate of political correctness, he would have been reprimanded or even fired. His methods came from a farm background. He said he was a farmer first and a teacher second. So he asked us to calculate how much lime would be required to raise the pH of an acre field from 6 to 6.5 or some such amount.
The class of 1965 did well after graduation in part because Dr. Walkup taught in the real world and even toughened us some. Betty became a doctor. I had an incredible career as a research and development chemist at Eli Lilly and Company. Dr. Walkup left an indelible impression on us all that chemistry would be very important in practical ways. We owe him much thanks.
Amy Johnson, Class of 1977
He told me I was "too good looking to go to medical school," which just made me more stubborn to do so!
Preston Miles, Class of 1970
Marty Langhorst and I were trying to do an experiment in our senior year. Things weren’t going right at all, and we really didn’t know whether we were doing something wrong or if the equipment wasn’t working correctly. The readers who were science majors will understand this frustration.
At that time, a lot of the equipment was not particularly high-quality or particularly well-maintained. With some anxiety (we sure didn’t want to ask for help, if it turned out to be something we had screwed up), we finally went to Dr. John. He quizzed us pretty sharply and evidently came to the conclusion that the instrument wasn’t working right. He got up and led us back into the lab saying, "Come on boys, that thing was made by someone just like us. If he made it, we can figure out how to make it work."
The point we got from this was a guarded confidence in our ability to work in the lab. Most of the lab experiments he assigned were explained in very broad outline—maybe only a vague objective and a little bit of theory. He expected us to come up with procedures and techniques on our own.
Since I’ve started teaching, I’ve come to think that Dr. John wasn’t particularly interested in the experimental results as such. He was more interested that we develop an approach to problem solving, and maybe some stubbornness to keep trying when things went ka-floey.
Neil Rush, Class of 1972
Dr. Walkup was one of my favorite professors when I attended Centre. I have many fond memories of him, and when I am playing cards with other alumni, the stories about Dr. John come out. We have told them many times, but they never fail to get a laugh.
Most of the sayings he had are unprintable. (Rush, get your a** in the !##*^# lab!)
Marie Wilkerson Jackson, Class of 1982
I was in one of Professor Walkup's science classes in 1979. I recall a situation after taking what I thought was a particularly difficult exam. Dr. Walkup was handing back our exams, and when he handed me mine, he said, "Miss Wilkerson must have partied with the Dekes on Tuesday night!" I didn't do very well on that exam. Let's just say, his comment hit home—he never had to say that to me again. I still think about that situation and laugh.
John Barton, Class of 1979
My one favorite (quotable in mixed company) statement from Dr. Walkup was, "You can’t build a skyscraper on an outhouse foundation."
Tom Rich, Class of 1960
Dr. Walkup. What a jewel! Fire in the belly, fire in the class. An undeniable unadorned legend. Country boots and grizzled face. Unabated passion for teaching chemistry. You'd burn the midnight oil just to keep up. And I learned more about farming than a city boy ought to.
Though gruff at times, Dr. Walkup really cared about our success. You could see it in his eyes. After graduating, I went to the University of Kentucky and obtained a degree in chemical engineering. His spirit helped me get through it.
The last time I saw Dr. Walkup was in 1972. He still remembered me. Without a doubt, he was my favorite teacher, and when I think about Centre today, I think about Dr. Walkup back then.
Michael Dyer, Class of 1969
Though not my favorite saying of his (but one that is p.c. enough to print): "You got the one bullet in my gun."
Mary Edmiston Grekila, Class of 1960
As a "townie," I was often recruited during summer and holiday breaks to help out with work related to the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company research that the chemistry department was engaged in. One morning, several of us were walking over to the "Cup" for our morning coffee break (the Hangout was closed during holidays). On that particular morning, Dr. Walkup had received a request from the dean's office for some paperwork that had not been turned in and was needed. He was, of course, irritated (to put it mildly). I can hear him now, in that long Southern drawl, say, "When the archaeologists (pronounced ah-kee-ologists) dig us up, they are goin' to say we were killed by administration and buried in paper (pronounced pa-pah)!"
Robert E. (Bob) Fields, Jr., Class of 1956
Dr. John Walkup was one of those uniquely special professors; he understood what education was all about. I served with him on the Admission Committee, for which he was well suited.
A review of a prospective student's application often prompted from Dr. Walkup one of the following: 1. "Don't tell me about his IQ; what I want to know is his 'Do Q." Can he do the work or not?" 2. "What is his 'will e' factor? Will he do the job or will he not?"
With Dr. Walkup on the committee, Admission Committee meetings were never dull. He had that special insight (window) to put things in perspective.
James L. Neb, Class of 1961
Dr. Walkup was a great teacher and could make chemistry understandable, almost fun. That is a gift. His demeanor, Mississippi drawl, and the pick-up truck all added to his persona. He earned respect, and I probably appreciated him more after graduation.
Dr. Walkup made me want to learn, and do well in class, and to please him. Those educators don't come along every day. Of all the science professors I had along my Centre journey, none exceeded John Walkup's talents and excellence.
Jack Smith, Class of 1979
When we discuss catalysts in my eighth grade science classes, I still tell the story Dr. Walkup told us about working for a paper company one summer. It seems he was hired by the company to determine why the night shift was getting two batches of chemicals and the day shift was only getting one. After working for a few days, he could not figure out the reason. The company told him to finish the week and they would pay him for his time. Near his final night, he was walking around with the night watchman, and simply by accident he noticed that the night watchman spit tobacco juice into the mixing chemicals. The tobacco juice was the catalyst causing the reaction to proceed quicker.
George Ellis, Class of 1959
To help me understand why I was having problems mastering a concept, Dr. Walkup explained, "Son, you just don't have enough datum-poles."
Richard (Dick) Lee Schmalz, Class of 1957
I visited Centre with my own children when they were looking at colleges. John took all of us home for lunch. He and I and my three kids sat on his front porch drinking lemonade while he and I smoked cigars and he extolled the benefits of getting an education at Centre.
Yes, he was rough and tough, but he had a big heart. I learned a lot from him, especially how to get the most out of those serving with or under you. I feel blessed to have had him in my life.
James E. Kurz, Class of 1956
Walkup had a number of priceless sayings. When we chemistry students were slow, you could count on hearing, "Time and tide waits on no man."
Karen Druzak, Class of 1981
I loved him!
Dick Mateer, Class of 1962
During my years at Centre, Dr. Walkup had a small herd of dairy cows (11-13 head). He grew hay and soybeans for the cows, as well as vegetables. At some point during the summer, he would come into the lab and declare that it was time to bring in the hay or the soybeans. We would all leave the lab and go to his farm to complete the task. As a lad born and raised in Ashland, a hotbed of Eastern Kentucky culture, I knew little about harvesting hay or soybeans. I learned a lot in a hurry. I also learned that Mrs. Walkup was a fantastic cook.
Gordon Coe, Class of 1955
I love sharing the wisdoms of Dr. Walkup. He loved to start with, "Son,..."
"When a school of business builds a new campus, they shouldn’t put any sidewalks in for at least three years. People will show you when they want them.”
"You don’t jump down out of the womb, stand erect, and speak distinctly; there is a learning process in everything."
"You cannot be a chemist without carrying a pocket knife." (After learning this from Dr. Walkup, I have carried a pocket knife all my life, except airlines won’t let me bring a pocket knife on the plane.)
Charles Martin, Class of 1975
Walkup gave me a paper that described the preparation of a material that I was going to use to make a chemical sensor. The details were sparse, but the paper said something to the effect of, "Mix solution A with solution B, and the material you want will appear as a white precipitate." So I made solution A and solution B according to the paper. I poured solution A into solution B, and nothing happened. No white precipitate. Nothing.
I remade solution A and solution B, and again poured solution A into solution B. Again—nothing!
So I got Walkup from his office, and said, "I'm following the directions in the paper. I made solution A. I made solution B. Now watch as I pour solution A into solution B. You see, Prof. Walkup, nothing happens."
Prof. Walkup picked up the beaker of solution B and poured in to the beaker of solution A (the opposite of what I did), and the white precipitate appeared. He looked at me and said, "Some guys can make love to all the girls, and some guys don't make love to any." And he walked out.
And thanks to Richard Dirks '75 for being one of several to relate an anecdote about a comment on the prize-winning physiology of a particular student that is perhaps best left in the oral tradition to be shared by classmates at Homecoming 2010 and other alumni gatherings in the future.