A unique reunion on Hope’s campus highlighted faculty-student rapport that time and distance could not shake or undo. On the 50th anniversary of his arrival at Hope College, Dr. Sheldon Wettack, a member of the Hope chemistry faculty from 1967 to 1982 who served as dean of the natural sciences for the last eight of those years, was celebrated by his former Hope research students in July.
During his 15 years at Hope, Wettack mentored 21 Hope students — self-named the Wettack Research Warriors — in his physical chemistry laboratory in both Lubbers Hall and the Peale Science Center. Upon invitation from organizers Dr. Ken Janda ’73 and Dr. Charlie Bibart ’69, thirteen of those former students returned for the reunion on campus, a few for the first time in decades. What they found is a college that has grown in size and stature yet with a still-strong reputation in and mission for the natural sciences.
Not coincidentally, the Wettack reunion coincided with the first annual Schaap Chemistry Symposium, with Dr. Sylvia Ceyer ’74 as the keynote speaker. Ceyer is the John C. Sheehan Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an elected member to the renowned American Academy of the Arts and Sciences. And she was a research student in Wettack’s p-chem lab. “There is no doubt in my mind that the encouragement and guidance of Sheldon, along with the warmth of his wife Marilyn throughout my student years, were crucial ingredients to my scientific future,” praises Ceyer.
Sheldon and Marilyn were “left speechless at the idea (of the reunion). We were both flabbergasted,” he says. But for Janda and Bibart, the notion of celebrating a person who affected the career trajectories of many Hope students made perfect sense. And to do so while that person is still an active scientist and professor on campus made the event even more meaningful. “Very few faculty get to hear from their former students after 50 years about what you meant to them half a century ago,” says Wettack. “The reunion was very special in that regard.”
Though Wettack left Hope in 1982 to become art and sciences dean at the University of Richmond, then president of Wabash College, and finally vice president/dean of the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in California, he returned to the college in 2004 to teach part-time. He was invited back to “help out around the chemistry department, and I thought it was be a good way to go into retirement.” Then he laughs, fully aware that he has never abided by the full definition of that r-word. He even became the announcer for Hope’s swim meets.
For Bibart, who spent his career in the pharmaceutical industry and is now retired, the reunion was a terrific way to reconnect with his former mentor and other Hope alums, some of whom he hadn’t seen in over four decades or had never met since the returnees spanned a decade of Hope years. With great affinity and technical jargon, they reminisced about all manner of memories and methodology, including the acquisition of a gas phase photon-counting fluorescence spectrometer that needed construction in Lubbers Hall. Though Wettack was its chief constructor, he allowed his research students to work right alongside him and learn the nuances of laboratory assembly.
“Almost anyone you talk to who worked with Sheldon was impacted significantly,” says Bibart. “The recurring theme is this: As we look back, we see how much we were impacted by Hope, Hope science, and Hope science with Sheldon Wettack.”
Janda, who has remained in contact with Wettack throughout their careers, concurs. Wettack opened doors for him and others, providing opportunities that steered him, and them, toward meaningful, reputable science career experiences whether in higher education or industry or public service.
“Sheldon seemed to pick me from out of the crowd to nurture me and mentor me. He was kind and forgiving, never perturbed with a mistake,” says Janda who is the dean for the physical sciences at University of California-Irvine. “He said we had to learn by doing, so mistakes were plentiful. But his patience was limitless.”
Working with those who have youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for chemistry seems to be a Wettack forte. Before finishing his doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin in the mid-70s, he taught high school science. After completing his degree there, he came right to Hope to instill in those slightly older the hard work and love of chemistry.
Janda, along with his wife, Patsy Meliere ’72, also paid homage in one more way to their former mentor. They contributed a significant gift to the Wettack Research Fellowship, a fund that supports Hope students in summer research experiences. “The strength of the sciences at Hope is what drew us here in the first place, and we want to see that continue,” says Patsy of their rationale for giving the gift to the fund’s endowment.
As their time together wound down, the Wettack reunion attendees presented Sheldon and Marilyn with a commemorative book filled with pictures and epistles detailing his former students’ life trajectories and Wettack’s effects on them. Each story — 17 in all — told a tale of determination, scientific passion, and a Hope education used well.
“Marilyn and I sat together and read those pages and lots of tears came to our eyes,” Wettack says. “We were blessed by this very special time with very special people.”
WETTACK’S RESEARCH WARRIORS
James Hardy ’68, Charles Bibart ’69, James Koert ’71, Mark Rockley ’71, Charles Kan ’72, Gordon Renkes ’72, Daniel Dethmers ’73, Ken Janda ’73, Robert Klapthor ’73, Sylvia Ceyer ’74, Bill McAndrew ’74, Mary Millard Mayo ’74, Doug Sluis ’74, Doug Worsnop ’74, James Garmirian ’76, Patricia Dwyer Hallquist ’76, Dave Bartels ’77, Elizabeth Hager ’77, Richard Wood ’77, Mary Koeppe Luidens ’75, Kathleen Stratton ’78