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Two alumni honored with KU engineering's highest honor

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

LAWRENCE — A man who led a pioneering career in the petrochemical industry highlighted by technologies that improve environmental safety and conserve natural resources, and another who has guided development of one of the fastest-growing regions of Kansas for decades are the winners of the 2018 Distinguished Engineering Service Award. 

Robert Jensen and Harold Phelps will be honored for outstanding contributions to engineering and their dedication to the profession at a ceremony set for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at the Kansas Union.

“This year’s winners embody the spirit of this award. They have each made outstanding contributions to the engineering industry and worked to make the world a better place,” said Michael Branicky, dean of the engineering school. “We’re pleased to recognize them with this award, and we’re honored that they are members of the Jayhawk engineering family.”

The School of Engineering Advisory Board has given the Distinguished Engineering Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by the school, annually since 1980. The award honors KU engineering alumni or engineers who have maintained a close association with the university and for outstanding contributions to the profession of engineering and society.

The award is made on the basis of an individual’s contribution to the public good, governmental service or the educational system, or contributions to the theories and practices of engineering, research and development in new fields of engineering or direction of an organization that has made exceptional contributions in design, production and development.

About the honorees:

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen’s pioneering career in the petroleum refining and petrochemical industries is highlighted by technologies that improve environmental safety and conserve natural resources. He played an instrumental role in developing biodegradable detergents now used in everyday life and came out of retirement to extend his career by working on a revolutionary energy source for future generations.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Jensen went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in chemical engineering from KU's School of Engineering in 1967 and 1969, respectively.

Jensen spent the entirety of his career at Universal Oil Products (UOP), a leading international supplier of process, catalyst and adsorbent technology to the hydrocarbon processing industry. He held various management positions in catalysis and separations research and development before retiring in 2007 as director of experimental development. He was lured out of retirement in 2011 to accept a new challenge as site leader at UOP’s Integrated BioRefinery in Hawaii.

Under Jensen’s leadership, many of UOP’s flagship breakthroughs in petrochemical process technology were initiated and invented. One of his signature accomplishments is the creation of a catalyst used in a widely adopted UOP technology to produce biodegradable detergents. The majority of household detergents for laundry and dishwashing are made using this process. Before this technology was available, it was common for foam from nonbiodegradable detergents to wash ashore on lakes and rivers around the world. 

Beyond his significant achievements in the petrochemical industry, Jensen has been a strong advocate for KU throughout his career. In the 1970s, Jensen served on the chemical and petroleum engineering advisory board for four years, where he mentored students as part of the department’s effort to improve its program and prepare for accreditation. Later, he helped facilitate faculty research programs in chemical and petroleum engineering by arranging for KU to receive UOP donations of laboratory equipment. In 2006, he played a key role in UOP Honeywell, becoming a member and strong supporter of KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.

Jensen has been awarded 11 U.S. patents and has numerous publications to his name. He is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Chemical Society. He was recognized at UOP Honeywell with the prestigious Stine Star Award for his achievements with biodegradable detergents.

Bob and his wife, Ruta, a KU alumna, split their time between Hinsdale, Illinois, and Arcadia, Michigan. They enjoy traveling and frequent get-togethers with their three daughters and five grandchildren.

Harold Phelps

On a foundation of integrity and engineering excellence, Harold Phelps has guided development of one of the fastest-growing regions of Kansas for decades. While building a career as a highly respected engineer, he has maintained strong ties to KU's School of Engineering — providing financial support and professional guidance.

Phelps founded Phelps Engineering Inc. (PEI) in 1990. The company is a full-service civil engineering and land-surveying firm with offices in Olathe. Under his leadership, Phelps Engineering has grown to more than 40 employees and has designed hundreds of private residential and commercial projects throughout Johnson County and the Kansas City area. The firm’s signature mixed-use projects include Mission Farms in Overland Park, Park Place in Leawood and Meadowbrook Park in Prairie Village.

Phelps is an established and respected leader in the Johnson County community — where local government leaders have come to appreciate and rely on his experience and advice, which provide a deeper understanding and broader context of complicated development issues.

PEI also played a vital role in planning and administrating significant public works projects in Johnson County, including major streets and wastewater infrastructure. Among these projects is the groundbreaking Tomahawk Creek watershed study, an innovative floodplain mapping and planning study that became the model for all subsequent watershed studies in Johnson County.

Phelps has served on the KU civil, environmental and architectural engineering advisory board since the early 1990s and is the current board chair. In 2006, he established the Ernest Pogge Scholarship Fund in honor of the late civil engineering professor emeritus, Ernest Pogge. This scholarship assists nontraditional students with financial need in civil engineering and is awarded to those interested in water resources and hydrology. As of 2017, 18 civil engineering students have benefited from this fund. Phelps also supported renovations of the concrete and water resources labs, and other improvements in the CEAE department. He is also a member of the Deans Club Premiere Society, signifying lifetime giving to KU Engineering that exceeds $100,000.

Phelps is a member of the American Public Works Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, Kansas Society of Land Surveyors, Engineers Club of Kansas City and is a licensed professional engineer in Kansas and Missouri. He was inducted into KU Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Academy in 2017.

Harold and his wife, Donna, live in Bucyrus. They have two daughters: Alyssa at Boston University in the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Department, performing concussion research; and Jenna, at Cornell University in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

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