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How to Toast One Who’ll “Never Retire”

If you’d been coming to campus every day for say, 51 years, chances are it might have become a bit routine. Perhaps expected. And maybe—let’s be frank now—boring?

An open door policy for 50 years.

Not so to Larry DeVries, who has not only been teaching for over 50 years, but working at the same place for the entire time – the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah.

In an era when moving up often means moving away, it may seem that staying happily and productively in place for an entire career (and one that spans five decades at that) is an anomaly.

What keeps Larry at work?  “I love it,” he says simply. There is no question about the truth of that statement, which is accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile. He likewise confesses that even today he experiences the same excitement and nervousness coming into the building when he has a class to teach as he did in the beginning.

Library of theses and dissertations by DeVries' students.

“Larry is a great citizen,” says Tim Ameel, chair of mechanical engineering, who has worked with Larry for 15 years. “He wants the department to do well, and students to have the very best experience.” He notes that Larry has carried the largest teaching load in the department for some time. “Larry decided to cut back on his research the past few years, but insisted that he be allowed to ramp up his teaching load,” says Ameel. “Among other awards, he was honored with the rank of distinguished professor at the U in 1991, which is proof of his outstanding teaching and research.”

A sample of prestigious recognitions.

But teaching is just part of his story.

DeVries is a career-long Ute and a life-long Utahn. He was born in Marriott, Utah, the son of a farmer who emigrated from Holland. His local roots run deep—like the onions he grew as a kid on the family farm. (Across the street and just to the west and east of where Larry was born, two other prominent University of Utah alumni were raised: J. Willard Marriott, founder of the hotel chain by the same name, and Tracy Hall, inventor of the equipment and process by which roughly 90 percent of the diamonds used in the world today are manufactured. Clearly, there is something powerful in the water west of Ogden.)  He met his wife Kay in Utah, studied civil engineering at Weber State, graduated magna cum laude with a master’s in mechanical engineering at the U, and received a Ph.D. with distinction in physics/mechanical engineering at the U in 1962.

Don’t be tempted to think he is parochial in either experience or outlook.

No one is sure if DeVries’ run of 39 consecutive years of research support from the National Science Foundation is a record or not, but it makes just about every other research scientist blanch with envy. Over his career he has also had research contracts and grants from the Office of Naval Research, the National Institute for Dental Research and NASA. With his students, DeVries has published two texts on adhesives and over 350 articles, book chapters and presentations.

He has served as a consultant on adhesives and materials to a long list of major corporations, from 3M and UNIVAC to Procter & Gamble and Emerson Electric, where he has served on the company’s Technical Advisory Board for 30 years. His students often benefit from his long association with industry leaders. He has traveled extensively in Europe, India and Asia to present research and to consult for various companies on technical matters, including defense of patents.

A wall of awards.

Notably, he is a fellow in both the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Physical Society. Traveling with ease between those two worlds is what has made his career especially fun, according to DeVries. He describes himself as the “Steve Allen of campus”—referring to the bifurcated talents of Allen, who was both comedian and classical musician, yet appreciated by professionals of either stripe. Similarly, scientists think DeVries is “OK, for a bridge builder,” and engineers think he’s “OK, for a scientist.”

But in addition to being a member of the associations, DeVries also actively served—as a local, regional or national officer, meeting chair, and on countless boards of trustees, editorial boards, committees and national advisory councils ranging from the Gordon Research Conference to the American Society for Engineering Education, and on campus as well.

Ameel comments that DeVries is remarkable not only for his length of tenure at the U, but also for the level and range of roles he has held at the institution.  He was department chair for 13 years and was president of the Academic Senate as recently as 2004. He also has worked on committees influencing faculty tenure, athletics … even parking.  “He is an institutional treasure,” says Ameel.

DeVries says simply, “I like to serve.”

Bet he made the shot, too.

 Count Utah sports among his “likes” too. He has been anointed as a “Superfan” for being a long-time season ticket holder, and is looking forward to watching the new competition as the Utes take the field and court as part of the Pac-12. 

Moving to the ”big leagues” is just one of the changes DeVries has noted through his long career at the U. Others are that students are more interested, and better prepared mathematically and the U is obviously a much bigger, more research-oriented institution than in the 1960s. Even back then, however, the U attracted faculty whose contributions are still felt throughout U, the state of Utah and industry.  Names and achievements roll off his memory in encyclopedic fashion.

Along with Marriott and Hall, DeVries reflects on contributions of other University of Utah giants: Henry Eyring, whose influence in chemistry is one of the reasons that department is still highly ranked; Grant Thompson who helped bring rocket propulsion company Thiokol (now ATK) to Utah; Tom Stockham whose work in digital sound helped bring us the compact disc; Dave Grant and magnetic imaging; Willem Kolf, inventor of the artificial kidney and director of the program that implanted the first artificial heart at the University Hospital; John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems (whose PDF and Photoshop software is familiar to almost every computer user) and whose contribution helped build the new Warnock Engineering Building; Ed Catmull, whose company, Pixar, helps thrill kids of all ages with such computer-generated films as “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.”; and other alumni too numerous to name.

Gezondheid, Larry!

About which DeVries asks, “With such a pool of talent produced at the U, how can one not be proud to be a Ute?”  So saying, he bears his dark red roots one more time. He concludes the interview unabashedly: “I love Utah, and I love the U.”

 Now it’s time for the U to share its love for Larry.