National symposium honors Weber's environmental work
When Walter J. Weber Jr. came to Michigan in 1963 as an assistant professor, he found himself the victim of mistaken identity.
Through a variety of events, he quickly learned of Walter J. "Wally" Webera former Wolverine fullback and assistant coach who helped U-M win four of its 11 national championships.
"During my first month in Ann Arbor, I was invited by the Detroit Athletic Club to give a talk on Michigan football, my first U-M paycheck ended up in his account at the Ann Arbor Bank, and I regularly got telephone calls asking if my dad' was in town," Professor Weber says. "The most intriguing mix-up was when I received notice of eligibility for retirement at the end of my first academic year."
Weber, the Gordon Maskew Fair and Earnest Boyce Distinguished University Professor, since has carved out his own impressive niche at U-M and elsewhere. He will be honored by the American Chemical Society with a three-day colloquium, "Physicochemical Processes in Environmental Systems: A Symposium in Honor of Professor Walter J. Weber Jr."
The Sept. 9-11 symposium, held in conjunction with the organization's national meeting in New York, will feature a banquet and presentations of more than 80 scientific papers about a field Weber helped establish and lead since coming to U-M.
"It is a huge honor and a privilege to have played a part in the [field's] conception and growth," Weber says. "The first 40 years have brought worthy challenges, and this is a celebration of that, not a retirement party."
Weber, whose 70 or so former Ph.D. students helped plan the symposium, says he would rather it honor them. They have had a profound effect on the field, he says, with about half teaching at major universities.
"It gives me great pleasure to pick up virtually any journal in the field and see so many of them and/or their students regularly pushing the envelopes of environmental science and technology," Weber says.
After graduating from Brown University in 1956 with a ScB. in chemical engineering, Weber worked for Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, Ill. It was there he began to take an interest in environmental issues. Weber says he and a neighbor, the director of utilities for the city, often spoke about water supply and wastewater disposal.
Weber's interest grew to the point he returned to school to learn more about the environment, in general, and water in particular. He earned master's degrees in engineering at Rutgers University and chemistry at Harvard, and a Ph.D. in water resources engineering at Harvard in 1962.
"When I caught the water bug, I really liked it," he says. "I developed an interest in environmental problems arising from the industrial developments of World War II. New chemical contaminants that were not addressed by contemporary technologies were appearing in water bodies and supply sources.
"I began exploring advanced technologies that could potentially solve such problems, and in blazing this new ground, found exciting research challenges and rewards."
Weber is writing a fourth book to go with three already on the shelf, and continuing his research and teaching efforts to help ensure drinkable water in the future.
"Safe drinking water is a scarce commodity in many areas of the world, and the most critical physical resource on earth in terms of the sustainability of humankind," he says. "You might have heard it said that wars of the future will likely be fought over water, not oil, and I can ensure you the process is well underway."