Dr. Frank N. Kelley Retires


Retiring dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering leaves an admirable legacy.

After 28 years of service to The University of Akron, Dr. Frank N. Kelley is saying goodbye. While Kelley is bound to be recognized for generations to come as the great leader and visionary who took the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering from its inception to one of the top polymer programs in the country, he will, more importantly, be remembered as a friend and colleague to many.

Kelley earned three degrees at The University of Akron - a bachelor of science in chemistry (1958), as well as a master's degree (1959) and a doctorate degree (1961) in polymer chemistry. While attending the University, he worked at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and later at the Institute of Polymer Science. After graduating, he was employed by the Union Carbide Corporation until entering active duty with the United States Air Force.

He was assigned to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where he conducted research and managed technical programs associated with solid-propellant mechanical properties. Kelley remained at the laboratory as a civilian after completing his tour. In 1966, he was named chief of propellant development, chief of advanced plans in 1970 and chief scientist in 1971.

In 1973, Kelley transferred to the position of chief scientist of the Air Force Materials Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and in 1976, after approximately nine months serving as interim director, was named director of the laboratory. Two years later, he returned to his alma mater as a professor and director of the Institute of Polymer Science. Kelley was appointed to his current position as dean when the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering was formed in 1988.

An active researcher, teacher and consultant, Kelley's work and publications have focused on the relationship of molecular structure to mechanical properties of polymeric materials. He has received many professional awards and honors, including the Rubber Age Award, the AIAA Outstanding Technical Contribution Award, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Civilian Meritorious Service Medal in 1967 and 1978, and the Exceptional Civilian Service Award from the Secretary of the Air Force.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Kelley to reflect on the past 28 years.

Q: What have been your proudest moments at the University?

A: The quality of the faculty that we have been able to put in place and the success of our graduates. From the earliest days, some of the people have become research vice presidents of major corporations such as Goodyear, Gen Corp, Owens Corning, places like that. We seem to be increasing in the number of graduates who become professors in good schools. It's hard to say what to be proud of because the duration is so long. Other than some of the physical facilities we have been able to put into place, the fact that we have greatly increased the number of endowed professorships is notable because that provides some stability and a safety net for the future.

Q: What do you see for the future of the college?

A: That will be up to the next dean and what that person has planned with faculty and staff. However, I think that the future will be challenging in that we will be facing the loss of a number of the senior people who have become synonymous with the program at Akron. It's inevitable that senior people will retire or sometimes go elsewhere. That requires some renewal. I am mostly concerned that we don't go through a loss of momentum before we get ourselves restabilized with a number of new faces.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: I plan to finish a log home we are building on Atwood Lake. That is in mid-construction right now. The thought of spending time there in a beautiful setting, a serene place is welcomed. I will continue my involvement with various corporations (polymer and advanced materials companies) as their board member or technical adviser and I will do some consulting (biotechnology companies) that allows me to mostly plan my own time of involvement, with the exception of quarterly meetings.

Q: Will you stay involved in the University and the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering?

A: I don't intend to be present much. I want to make sure that the next person who holds my job will not have me looking over his or her shoulder. Of course, I would be quite happy to consult with this person on the various issues and loose ends I leave behind. I don't intend to stay on the teaching faculty. It is possible that I could have some involvement in the future with some of our distance learning programs and science teacher training programs.

Q: What are some of your most memorable moments on campus?

A: Each of my three children went here either for all or some of their college experience, as did my wife and I; so there are family-related memories. My son played football here, and it was exciting going to the games and watching him.

The occasions when we have had to advocate and raise funds and make major decisions for building some of our buildings were exciting times. There are the great events surrounding the ground breaking, construction and final dedication of this building (Goodyear Polymer Center) followed later by the Polymer Engineering Academic Center. I can't skip mentioning the (Dale) Chihuly sculpture. One of the great satisfactions that I have is seeing the Donald Bowles Memorial Garden at the east end of the Goodyear Polymer Center. Don was my associate dean and a classmate of mine. And his contributions to the University occurred before he joined our college, as he was a vice president and an executive assistant to the president. He had worked up the ranks from a job in purchasing. When Don passed away, memorializing him somehow was very important to me.

Physical things are so easy to describe but the programmatic things, the various people and their influence, those are the things that really make the program.

One of the things that advanced us in the eyes of the world was the 1994 international conference that was held here. That particular conference is the largest and most significant one in the polymer world. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has various international symposiums. The polymer one only comes to this country every 12 years. So we only had about one chance at it. More than 1,700 people representing 47 countries were here. I have often heard from folks after that saying that was when they really became aware of the significance of the Akron program.

I am also pleased with the wonderful things we were able to do to memorialize people, naming the Institute of Polymer Science after Professor Maurice Morton who launched our Ph.D. program with Dr. Norman Auburn. The older I get, the more I value that sort of remembrance of our heritage. We need to try to make sure that we don't lose track of those who have contributed before us.

Still, one of the real highlights was putting the hood over my daughter Katie's head when she got her Ph.D. in polymer science. I don't know many parents who got to do that. I knocked her cap off hugging her but that's all right. I generally hood the doctoral graduates at the graduation ceremonies. It was such a thrill to be the hooding dean for her. That sits up there with the best of them as a remembrance.

It was good to be recognized by the U.S. News and World Report survey as among the top few programs that they listed. Listing of second in the nation. That was a specialization ranking that doesn't happen very often.

Q: What were some of the greater challenges you faced?

A: In mid-career I changed from government technical management to the university environment - from the Air Force to an academic position. The adaptation to the academic environment was stressful. It was quite a challenge to earn the trust of the faculty, to develop programs and to develop a sense of teamwork. It's never complete because this a profession in which the contributions of individuals seem to be highlighted quite often for such things as promotion and tenure. Yet you want to have people value the team. I was very much used to team building as part of the Air Force and saw that it really wasn't part of the culture that I came into. Now, after all these years, it seems as if we have succeeded.

Q: Has the industry itself has changed throughout the years?

A: That is certainly true but some things have not changed as much. When I arrived back at Akron, the rubber industry was strong in the city. There were the four giant companies. When I looked at our research funding and saw that less than 5 percent came from local industry, I began making a lot of visits with the companies technical management to understand why. The uniform answer I would get was, 'We really like to hire your graduates.' Of course, my answer was that it takes a lot of resources to do that and how about being helpful. They did help out, largely on the philanthropic side rather than the research side. The industry was fairly secretive and highly competitive.

However, when they began moving manufacturing out, a very strong vendor supplier services industry and a very substantial concentration of polymer companies remained. It was natural that the industry would transition to a highly diversified plastics and specialty products type of industry.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I think we are at a watershed time and this program can either sink to the depths or rise to the heights. It all depends on acquiring and retaining the quality of faculty we have. The faculty brings the reputation; they bring the funds for doing the job and they attract the students. There isn't much else you need to run a successful program; therefore, I have always concentrated on the faculty.

At the end of the interview, Kelley's face lit up as he spoke about the surprise party some of his former students threw for him. He thought he was on his way to a birthday party for his daughter, but when he arrived at the restaurant, she told him she had a surprise for him. Still thinking that they were heading to a party for her, he went along with it.

"When I arrived, the door opened, and one of my former women graduate students, of whom I am particularly proud, was there with her camera," Kelley recalls. "It slowly dawned on me that this was not about my daughter's birthday - it was about me. About half of them (former students) were there. It was a real pleasure. Some of them have a few years on them now. It was a total surprise. And to think that they would come from the Philadelphia area, Michigan, North Carolina, some even called me from California while I was there. Some wrote notes because they were either overseas or couldn't get here.

"One of the big memories is of the people whose lives and careers you have affected personally," adds Kelley. "That is a very, very satisfying side of this business. We talked a lot about being dean, working with faculty and things like that, but I don't want to forget this side of it because we have some great and successful students, and to think they were in my research group and I was their mentor. Sometimes they were smart enough that they could have done it without me, but I like to think I played a role in their success."