IN MEMORIAM: John D. Kemper, Engineering Dean, 1969-83

John D. Kemper on balcony, scenery behind
John D. Kemper in retirement in Medford, Oregon.

Quick Summary

  • His 30-year academic career started and ended here, and a building bears his name
  • His private-sector experience aided him in management and in preparing students for their careers
  • Published several nature books in retirement

John D. Kemper, second dean of the College of Engineering, serving from 1969 to 1983, died April 25 at the age of 93.

He joined the faculty in 1962 and retired in 1991 — his first and only job in academia. He arrived with significant experience in the private sector and a demonstrated passion for engineering education, having served on UC’s Engineering Advisory Council since 1955.

He was an experienced manager, too, which no doubt helped him during his tenure as dean — a period that coincided with a UC Davis growth spurt. His college doubled in size to 2,110 students and added new graduate and undergraduate programs, including computer science and aeronautical engineering.

His experience prior to UC Davis also buoyed the college’s reputation for blending theory and practice and preparing students for their careers as engineers.

The college changed the name of the Engineering II Building to the John D. Kemper Hall of Engineering in 2003, unveiling a plaque describing Kemper as “a man of strong convictions, kindness and efficiency.” A display case in the lobby holds a copy of his popular textbook, Engineers and Their Profession.

He was a former president of the Yolo Audubon Society and had published Discovering Yolo County Wildlife (1997), a collection of nature columns, followed by Birding Northern California (1999). After moving to Medford, Oregon, his books included Southern Oregon’s Bird Life (2002), Exploring Southern Oregon’s Beautiful Places (2003), and The Rogue Valley and Wildflowers of Southern Oregon (both 2006).

He is survived by his daughter Kathy Mattson, and a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.

“I was very fortunate to visit with John at his home in Medford in 2016,” said Jennifer Sinclair Curtis, dean of the College of Engineering. “He was so gracious and talked about how he treasured his time at UC Davis and how much he loved our college.”

Engineer by day, student by night

Kemper graduated from Palo Alto High School, then earned an Associate of Arts degree at Ventura Junior College. In the earliest job listed in his employment file, he worked as a draftsman for Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank from 1943 to 1944, earning 90 cents an hour.

After that came two years in the Army Air Corps amid World War II (he attained the rank of acting first sergeant), and then UCLA, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1949.

He then began his career — working at Telecomputing Corp. (design engineer and division chief engineer), H.A Wagner Co. (chief mechanical engineer) and Smith-Corona-Marchant Inc. (chief engineer and vice president of engineering) — and switched to night classes at UCLA, earning his master’s in engineering in 1959.

Then, while teaching at UC Davis, he spent the summers of 1964 to 1968 and the academic year of 1968-69 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, earning a doctorate in structural mechanics.

He was a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education. He had been a member of the executive committee of the ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council.  

In service to the National Research Council, he had served as chairman of the Panel on Graduate Study of the Committee on Education and Utilization of the Engineer.

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