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For the Love of Lehigh and Chemical Engineering

Retired Exxon Mobil manager Gary Kohler ’63 ’65G ’67G looks back at his humble beginnings in Northampton, Pennsylvania, and gives a lot of credit to Lehigh for his success. As an undergraduate student majoring in chemical engineering, Kohler commuted to save money and greatly benefitted from a partial four-year Alcoa tuition scholarship. But the proud alumnus will tell you that the biggest impact on his education was Dr. William Schiesser, his graduate advisor, who mentored Kohler while he continued his education on South Mountain to earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. in the same field.

“I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship with Dr. Schiesser’s help to go to graduate school. I really wanted to work in his specialty area and I was grateful that he took me on as a Ph.D. student,” Kohler said, referring to the specialty area of scientific computing. “He was very accommodating in terms of what I wanted to do instead of what he wanted.”

After earning his third Lehigh degree, Kohler began working at the Exxon Refinery in Baytown, Texas and forged a rewarding career before retiring in 2000 from the newly merged ExxonMobil. Living in Canada, England, and across the U.S. during his profession, he specialized in automatic process control and managed large projects that included providing engineering services to 15 European refineries and directing a lubricating research laboratory in Canada.

Kohler said one of the things he enjoyed most was combining technical knowledge with the ability to lead others. “That combination was just right up my alley. In 32 years, I had 18 different jobs. I had a lot of different opportunities in a lot of different settings in areas that I was not necessarily the expert. I had to rely on others who had the experience that I didn’t have and help forge a team to achieve certain objectives.”

Schiesser, who is now an emeritus Lehigh faculty member, kept an eye on Kohler’s career and commented that his ability to understand the technology and to also be able to manage a group of people “is a rare skill.”

Kohler highly regards the value of his Lehigh education and quickly shares that the Kohler family is a Lehigh legacy family. All three of his daughters – Kristin ’89 ’91G (BS and MS, chemistry), Gretchen ’90 (BS, geological sciences), and Ingrid ’92 (BA, architecture) – earned their degrees at Lehigh and so did Ingrid’s husband, Dave Kozemchak ’90 (BS, industrial engineering).

“The biggest thing my Lehigh education did was teach me to think,” said Kohler. “You can read books and see how to solve a problem, but it is rare that you run up against that very same problem more than once. You have to adapt your thought process from how you solved the last problem to how to solve the next problem that you never saw before.”

Believing that a strong faculty is needed for a strong curriculum, Kohler and his wife, Anne Drennan, established the Dolores T. and William E. Schiesser Endowed Faculty Development Fund in honor of his mentor and life-long friend. The fund provides for discretionary resources to enhance the departmental education and research programs. The first faculty member to benefit from the fund was Javier Buceta, who joined the Lehigh faculty as an associate professor in 2014.

“Javier had competing offers from strong places. One of the things that helped recruit him was offering him support from the Schiesser Endowment Faculty Development Fund,” said Dr. Mayuresh Kothare, department chair and R.L. McCann Professor of Engineering.

In addition to establishing the Schiesser named fund, Kohler and Drennan created a charitable remainder unitrust that provides income to them during their lifetime and will ultimately support the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Looking at the investment alternatives, they thought this best fit their needs and Lehigh’s needs at the same time.

In providing for Lehigh’s future, Kohler said, “We just wanted to do the best we could in building the young faculty in chemical engineering. Our experience has been very rewarding.”

-Dawn Thren is Associate Director, Advancement Communications at Lehigh University.

March 23, 2016

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