Head of the class
Reading the resume of Dr. W. Wesley Eckenfelder, one quickly realizes this is a man who knows wastewater treatment. Affiliated with more than a dozen professional organizations, he has served as an environmental consultant to some of the biggest chemical, petroleum, pharmaceutical and food processing companies in the United States. His honors include a long list of awards and fellowships, including elected fellowships with the American Institute of Chemists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also one of the first to design and use aerated lagoons and activated sludge treatments in the remediation of pulp and paper mill wastewater.
But the argument can be made that Dr. Eckenfelder's most important achievements have been not in the field, or in business, but in the classroom. As a teacher, he helped the thousands of students who passed through his classroom to better understand the principles of wastewater treatment. As the author, or co-author, of more than 20 texts (including Activated Sludge Treatment of Industrial Wastewaters, Industrial Water Pollution Control, Principles of Water Quality Management, Water Quality Engineering for the Practicing Engineer, Biological Waste Treatment, and Biological Treatment of Sewage and Industrial Wastes), the first published in 1956, he has been influential in the education of several generations of environmental engineers. In 1989, he was made an emeritus distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University. Wastewater treatment education, however, was not his first career choice.
Finding a challenge
In 1944, Eckenfelder was what he describes as a "frustrated structural engineer." Looking for something more stimulating, he realized sanitary engineering was just beginning to develop as a field. "It was wide open at that point in time," he said. "It wasn't a science, it was an art."
By 1948, he had completed his post-graduate work in chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, and his master's degree in sanitary engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He worked briefly as a sanitary engineer for a refining company, and as a research associate for New York University, but soon opened his own environmental consulting firm. Eckenfelder Associates opened in 1949, but after several years of business, the nascent field of environmental consulting wasn't prosperous enough to support him. An alternative had to be found.
"The consulting firm wasn't doing too well. A faculty position opened up at Manhattan College, and I took it because I needed the money," Eckenfelder said.
What may have began strictly from necessity soon proved to be a major part of his career. " I really enjoy teaching," Eckenfelder said. "I always had a dual career. One fed the other. The consulting gave me experience and case histories to help me in teaching, and teaching kept me up on all the developments."
"In this field, a good teacher cannot teach without practical experience," he said.
Eckenfelder's real-world experience gave him a unique perspective. "He's the kind of guy that can take a very difficult theoretical principle and make it easy to understand, and how to apply it," said Dr. A. J. Englande, a professor in the environmental health sciences department at Tulane University, and a former student.
Dr. Davis L. Ford, owner of David Ford and Associates, an environmental consulting firm in Austin, Texas, is also a former student. He said Eckenfelder's classes were typically lectures, with Eckenfelder using his own knowledge to educate. "He has an impeccable memory," he said. "I've never seen him use a note in my whole life."
Writing the book on wastewater treatment
As wastewater treatment was still being developed as a field, teaching it often presented a challenge. Eckenfelder, already fairly well-published in academic journals, began writing textbooks, partnering with other authors, then writing on his own. His books quickly became primary texts, translated into Japanese and French, with later works translated into Italian and Chinese. The enthusiastic response from other educators and environmental professionals convinced Eckenfelder he could help fulfill the need for technical textbooks. "That got me interesting in carrying on," Eckenfelder said. "I felt that there was no book on industrial wastewater treatment, so I wrote one."
Both Ford and Englande agreed that students in Eckenfelder's classes benefited from more than his knowledge. "He really cared about the students in the class, and the students he mentored," Englande said.
"He would spend his time more with the students than he would with faculty or administrators, and I think students appreciated that," Ford said. "By virtue of working with him, I feel like I got a jump start on a lot of people my age. I attribute a lot of whatever success I have to him."
Eckenfelder's devotion to his field has not diminished. He continues to lecture in continuing education courses and training programs around the world, and is regarded as one of the foremost experts in wastewater treatment. Eckenfelder said he enjoys teaching his colleagues. "Here in continuing education, I'm dealing with people practicing out in the field. It's far more challenging in a lot of ways than undergrads, who accept anything you say," he laughed.
Eckenfelder has not left behind his consulting career, however. As a senior technical director with Brown and Caldwell, he still is able to help his students understand the still-evolving environmental field. "Over the last decade, industry has become far more knowledgeable about environmental problems, and is more interested in trying to solve them. Previously, they preferred to hire an attorney rather than an engineer. It's become a pleasure to work with industry, because we've become a team," he said.
This article originally appeared in the December, 1999 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 10, Number 12, pp. 20-21.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.