Spotlight on John Wallace, Duryea Society Member
Not every eighth-grader would appreciate accompanying his mother on a trip to New York City to see a plain, old office at a college, but when John Wallace came to the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, then known as the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he room in question had deep meaning for him. It had been dedicated in memory of his father, John, a chemical engineering major who had graduated in 1936. “So the trip was a special one,” he explains. “And not only did I get to meet Donald Othmer [who then held the title Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering], but I got to eat at a Horn & Hardardt’s automat for the first time.”
“My father died when he was just 36 years old, and I was only four,” Wallace recalls. “He had been a class president and valedictorian and was part of a group of incredible chemical engineers. His classmates included Carl Setterstrom, who became a vice president of Dart Chemical and Poly trustee; Ray Katzen, who invented some of the processes that created alcohol from plants, started a consulting firm in Havana, and dedicated the office in memory of my father; Henry Myers, who incidentally was the first to do the Butterfly Stroke in competition in 1933; and Joseph J. Jacobs, who built the huge engineering firm and was a great benefactor to Poly.”
Following in his father’s impressive footsteps, Wallace entered the School of Engineering in 1967. While he contemplated majoring in aeronautical engineering, the country’s space program seemed to Wallace to be nearing its peak, and he decided instead on metallurgy. (The year of Wallace’s admission, a new Department of Metllurgical Engineering, headed by Professor Alan A. Johnson, had been established.)
“The department was very small,” Wallace recalls. “I think there were about seven students and seven professors, so it was almost like having private tutoring for years. It also meant we couldn’t get away with a thing.” Even though he was a student during what has been known as the “Swinging Sixties,” Wallace acknowledges that the school’s student body was particularly studious and serious. “I’m not saying that we didn’t have good times,” he explains. “But you came here to work and learn. I did take part in anti-Vietnam protests and enjoyed the social and cultural opportunities being in New York City presented, but my studies were the most important thing.” He notes that on recent visits to the campus, the current students appear equally studious and competitive—a gratifying sight given the hard-partying reputation of many other colleges.
Wallace not only studied hard—he worked hard. His summers were spent toiling in foundries, where the hardened blue-collar workers sometimes teased him for being a “college boy.” Still, even though the work was difficult—casting ovens can easily reach 2900 degrees Fahrenheit—the jobs allowed him access to well-equipped research and development labs, where he was able to carry out his own investigations.
After graduating from the School of Engineering, Wallace went on to a wide and varied career. This includes stints at the American Can Company (then one of the largest such firms in the country), Texas Instruments, the silver manufacturer Handy & Harmon, and the precious-metals supplier Leach Garner. He is currently the president and COO of Deringer-Ney, which invents, develops, and supplies precious-metal alloys and precision components to the medical, electrical controls, and automotive industries, among others. He is active in the development of Micro Manufacturing, which uses raw materials and processes to produce stampings, plastic molded parts, and machined parts to 5-micron dimensions for the complex assemblies that are the future of medical devices.
He acknowledges that his education here paved the way for his career success. “I remember being advised as a student by a metallurgical executive at International Nickel to work for a company in the metals business that would allow me to build on my expertise by moving from engineering to production, sales, R&D—you name it—and that’s what I’ve done,” he says.
Because of his enduring connection to his alma mater, Wallace is a member of the Samuel B. Duryea Society, a select group of individuals who have named the School of Engineering as a beneficiary in their wills, trusts, retirement accounts, and life insurance policies and whose generosity allows a new generation of aspiring engineers to obtain a stellar education.
He may be even more of a fixture on campus one day. “The group of chemical engineers who went to school here in the 1930s is certainly worthy of an entire book. They made a major mark on the world,” he says. “That just might be a project for me in retirement. I could start my research right at the Bern Dibner Library!”