Obituary: James M. McKelvey Sr., engineering dean emeritus, 94

James M. McKelvey Sr., dean of the School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis from 1964 to 1991, died Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Bethesda, Md. He was 94.

McKelvey was instrumental in transforming the school, renamed the James McKelvey School of Engineering in January 2019, from a regional program to a nationally recognized research institution throughout his tenure as dean.

The former dean grew up in University City, Mo. After earning an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1945, he returned to St. Louis, earning a master’s in chemical engineering in 1947 and a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1950, both from Washington University.

McKelvey

“James McKelvey Sr. left a remarkable and unprecedented imprint on both our McKelvey School of Engineering and on our entire university community,” said Andrew D. Martin, chancellor of Washington University. “He represented the very best of Washington University, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities I had this past year to spend time with him and learn about the many contributions he has made. I have no doubt his legacy will endure, not only through the buildings and programs that bear his name, but through the family members, colleagues and friends who continue to honor Jim Sr. with their leadership and service.”

After his doctoral studies, McKelvey joined DuPont, where he researched polymer processing and became a pioneer in the field. In 1954, he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, and, in 1957, he returned to Washington University as an associate professor of chemical engineering. In 1960, he became a full professor, and in 1962, he was named department chair. Two years later, McKelvey Sr. became the seventh dean of the university’s engineering school, a position he held for 27 years.

During his tenure as dean, McKelvey led the school to prominence in engineering research, education and innovation. He launched the Engineers’ Scholarship Program, the Dual Degree Program and the Cooperative Education Program. Under his visionary leadership, three new buildings — Bryan, Lopata and Jolley Halls — were constructed. The school’s endowment grew more than tenfold, from $4 million to nearly $52 million, and research expenditures grew substantially. Although he officially retired in 1996, McKelvey continued teaching in the chemical engineering department through the 2007-2008 academic year.

“Since I arrived at WashU, I have not only held the title of dean, but also have had the honor of holding the James M. McKelvey Professor of Engineering,” said Aaron F. Bobick, dean of the McKelvey School of Engineering and the James M. McKelvey professor. “Today I am particularly reminded of the challenge and opportunity that I and all of us in Engineering have to continue to build upon Jim’s legacy of the pursuit of excellence in research and education.”

In 2016, McKelvey Sr.’s son, entrepreneur James M. McKelvey Jr., gave a lead gift to the university to construct James M. McKelvey, Sr. Hall, to be completed in 2020.

Earlier this year, McKelvey Jr. shared what he admired about his father.

“My father is a living example of patience and humility,” McKelvey Jr. said. “When I ask for advice, he does not pontificate. But watching him, I just absorb the spirit of someone who is always charitable and kind and modest but also very accomplished. And that’s a great role model, and I learn from him every time.”

Washington University has honored McKelvey Sr. with the William Greenleaf Eliot Society’s Search Award and with an undergraduate research award established in his name. His contributions have also been recognized throughout the years by the school, which has bestowed upon him its Alumni Achievement Award, Distinguished Faculty Award and Dean’s Award. In 2003, John F. McDonnell and the JSM Charitable Trust established the James M. McKelvey Professorship in his honor.

Undergraduate students interested in research benefit from the James M. McKelvey Undergraduate Research Scholars program, which provides selected students with an award to conduct research with any Washington University faculty member in engineering, medicine or the sciences. These scholars also take advantage of special programming, including both cultural and academic activities.

McKelvey Sr. is survived by his wife and Washington University alumna Judith McKelvey, MD; son and alumnus James McKelvey Jr., and his wife, Anna McKelvey; son and alumnus Robert McKelvey, and his wife and alumna Stacey McKelvey, MD; stepdaughter Elizabeth Goldberg, and her husband and alumnus, Eric Goldberg; stepson Edward Forgotson, and his wife, Jennifer Craig Forgotson; brother Robert McKelvey, and his wife, Peggy; brother Charles Forbes, and wife, Marilyn; friend Donald Mosby; grandchildren Ian, Morgan, James, Lucy and Margaret, and stepgrandchildren Juliet and Jerome. 

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 8 at Graham Chapel. On that day, the university’s flag will be flown at half-staff. Memorial contributions may be made to the James McKelvey School of Engineering.

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