Mentor, leader, friend. These are just three of the titles earned by John Wettaw, longtime former Northern Arizona University professor and Arizona legislator, throughout his life. Wettaw died Sunday; he was 79.
“Today the Lumberjack community mourns the loss of a university icon, John Wettaw,” NAU President Rita Cheng announced Sunday on Twitter. “John dedicated his life to the sciences long before STEM was a regularly used term. He made an impact in his field and in the classroom, and he changed the lives of students who crossed his path.”
Wettaw taught chemistry at NAU for 47 years, during which time he also became the longest-serving Republican state legislator in Arizona history, serving 20 years in the Arizona House of Representatives and eight in the senate. He retired from NAU in 2014. In recognition of his services to the university – where he is said to have taught more than 15,000 students – the NAU Biology and Biochemistry building was named after him in 1999.
He held various roles in the Arizona legislature including president pro tempore of the Senate and chairman of the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, all the while advocating for education above all else, which allowed him to secure funding for NAU’s biochemistry building and the Walkup Skydome.
After President Cheng announced his death Sunday, Wettaw’s former colleagues and students quickly flooded social media with commendations of his character and achievements.
Ken Bennett, former Arizona Senate President and Secretary of State, tweeted, “Sorry to hear of the passing of a good friend and colleague. John’s last 2 years in the Senate were my first 2 and we shared an office suite together. He was dedicated to making AZ better, especially in education. God Speed dear friend!”
Arizona Board of Regents Chair Ron Shoopman added, “He leaves a lasting legacy of honored service to our state and commitment to students. As we mourn his loss, we celebrate his passion for Arizona, his joy of teaching and his tremendous impact on students.”
Others named Wettaw a great professor, dedicated public servant and gentleman, noting that his loss would be felt by communities throughout the state -- especially at the university, where his impact was so significant that he not only became an academic building’s namesake, but was also recognized as a NAU Homecoming Dedicatee in 2002 and awarded an honorary doctorate in 2008.
Wettaw was born in Saint Louis, Missouri on April 17, 1939. He graduated from Southern Illinois University with a B.A. in chemistry in 1961; six years later, he received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Michigan State University. He started his work at NAU the same year.
Wettaw’s early research, published in the Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data and The Journal of Physical Chemistry, revealed extensive work with carbon tetrachloride and carbon-13. His influence reached far beyond his publications, though.
Diane Stearns, interim dean of NAU’s College of Engineering, Informatics and Applied Sciences, said Wettaw was an important mentor and instructor when she joined the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1997.
“John distinguished himself through his love for NAU, and his ability to remember pretty much anyone he had ever taught,” she said in an email. “He got a kick out of teaching the children of his former students, and had an amazing ability to remember names whether he was walking down the hall or bumping into people in Flagstaff.”
Stearns recalls his generous funding of the NH Chemistry Scholarship, which he created in honor of his parents, Nancy and Henry Wettaw. The title of the scholarship was changed to include his name in 2007, she said. The Nancy & Henry Wettaw Chemistry Award now comprises two scholarships for top achieving students of both general and organic chemistry courses.
“When I think of John, I think of him standing outside of the old Chemistry Building (now the Science Annex) taking a cigarette break with a can of diet soda in hand. He loved to stand outside and chat with everyone who walked by, again, most of whom he knew by name,” Stearns said.
Christy Farley, NAU Vice President for External Affairs & Partnerships, met Wettaw in 1993 when she was working in the governor’s office and he was serving as senator. She said she appreciated Wettaw’s advice because of its candor; he was skilled in finding practical solutions to complicated situations.
Farley continued to work with Wettaw when she became employed at NAU and noted his undeniable passion for chemistry and his unwavering belief in his students to learn what they might consider a difficult subject.
“He would say, ‘Oh, you can pass my chemistry classes. Anyone can pass chemistry,’” Farley recalled. “I believe that was his approach to teaching…which is that every student who comes to the university can be successful. And he really felt like it was his job to make them successful.”
Though Wettaw had a gruff exterior, Farley added, he was full of a generosity and kindness that have created a legacy to live well beyond him.
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done with other people who have helped make those efforts successful. I’ve been honored to work with such fine constituents and colleagues during my career,” Wettaw told Flagstaff Business News in 2014. “I’ve had a good life in Flagstaff and Arizona.”
Details regarding Wettaw’s memorial services are still to be announced.