May 12, 2004

Friends, colleagues mourn James W. Neckers

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A building at Southern Illinois University Carbondale bears his name, but friends and colleagues say professor James W. Neckers' legacy is the continuing strength of a chemistry department he began shaping nearly 77 years ago.

"His legacy is the creation of a very strong, academically oriented, research-oriented department, which has continued to this day," said Tyrrell. "The chemistry department has always been recognized as one of the strong departments in the University."Neckers is the foundation of a very solid Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said associate dean James Tyrrell, a chemistry professor at SIUC since 1967.

Neckers died Saturday, May 8, 2004, at his home in Carbondale, three weeks after celebrating his 102nd birthday.

A native of Clymer, N.Y., Neckers came to what was then Southern Illinois Normal University in 1927, the same day he received his doctoral degree in analytical chemistry from the University of Illinois at the age of 25. Two years later, he became department chair ­ a post he held for the next 36 years. Neckers retired in 1967.

Neckers helped transform a teachers college into a full-fledged university by an emphasis on research, said retired chemistry professor Russell F. Trimble, whom Neckers hired in 1954.

Neckers chaired the department when the University entered its extensive growth period, and under his leadership the department's undergraduate program earned accreditation from the American Chemical Society, said Tyrrell.

"For a small chemistry department as it was at that time, it was a mark that we had a good program," he said. "I think he probably considered that one of his major achievements at that time."

Neckers was the last surviving member of SIUC's "Four Horsemen," a near-legendary group of professors who made the University's chemistry department a successful pipeline for future doctoral candidates. The Four Horsemen consisted of the chemistry department's faculty members - - Neckers, Robert A. Scott, Talbert W. Abbott and Kenneth A. Van Lente.

According to the book, "Ordeal of Southern Illinois University," it was a standing quip among chemists that many other universities built their graduate chemistry programs with SIUC undergraduates. That serves "as a testimony to the kind of education he gave his students," said Trimble.

Neckers' commitment to strong teaching and high academic standards, and a real concern for students, also are part of his legacy, said Tyrrell.

"If a student had an interest, he would basically grab a hold of them and really spend the time and effort to bring them along," he said.

In 1940, Neckers, Abbott and Van Lente co-authored a freshman manual, "Experimental General Chemistry." The book, used by more than 200 universities and colleges, went through four editions over the next 30 years.

During his tenure, the department grew from four to 24 faculty members, won its first American Chemical Society accreditation and added master's and doctoral programs in 1956 and 1961, respectively.

Two of Neckers' undergraduate students later served as president of the American Chemical Society. While department chair, more than 500 students graduated as chemistry majors, more than 200 went on for master's degrees and another 72 enrolled in doctoral programs.

Neckers' contributions also went beyond the chemistry department, said Tyrrell. He helped create the present university retirement system for faculty, and helped with the formation of SIUC's Faculty Senate.

He established an endowment that funds scholarships for students and guest lectures.

Neckers was known for his dry wit, and even after his retirement remained involved with the department. He would regularly attend weekly research seminars and continued to participate in department functions until three weeks ago. Last month, Neckers attended a departmental seminar and lecture and the dinner afterwards, which included a celebration of his birthday, Tyrrell said. He noted that Neckers was "extremely frail, but his mind was as sharp as ever."

Neckers is the person who "took our department from being a small, but good teaching department to being a department which has managed to achieve considerable recognition as a research department and one of the best departments in the University," said Tyrrell.

In 1970, the University dedicated the James W. Neckers Building, which houses SIUC's physical sciences programs. In 1979, his book, "The Building of a Department: Chemistry at Southern Illinois University, 1927-1967," detailed the growth of the department and the University.

Neckers is survived by his daughter, Nancy Blackwell, and son-in-law, Henry Blackwell, three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; a brother, M. Carlyle Neckers; four nephews and a niece. His wife, Jean (Jeanette), and a daughter, Janice, preceded him in death.

The funeral for James W. Neckers is at 3 p.m., Saturday, May 15, 2004 at the First Presbyterian Church, 310 S. University Ave., Carbondale, IL. Visitation is from 2 p.m. until the time of the service. Burial will be in Oakland Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to the James and Jean Neckers Lectureship Fund at SIUC or the church.