More than 100 faculty, staff and students crowded into Eberhardt Hall on Sept. 19, 2007 for a memorial celebration of chemical engineer, inventor and philanthropist Otto H. York (11/27/10-7/12/07), formerly of Maplewood. York was both friend and benefactor to NJIT, providing more than $1 million in gifts. Both NJIT’s chemical engineering department and the environmental science building are named in his honor.
Celebration speakers focused on York, the man, whom many people at NJIT—especially students—had come to know well. “Every year Otto spoke to our freshman students,” recounted Reginald Tompkins, PhD, a professor in NJIT’s chemical engineering department. “Sometimes the talk would extend up to 45 minutes. But the students really liked him. He always came out number one as the best speaker in their evaluations. We are already missing Otto York.”
Student speakers noted that York taught by example, showing it was important to interact with everyone.
NJIT President Robert A. Altenkirch noted that York was not an alumnus of NJIT. “He was a graduate of Purdue University, which is also my alma mater. However, as an outstanding chemical engineer and entrepreneur who built a highly successful company in New Jersey, Otto recognized NJIT’s vital role in education, research and economic development. He was also ever mindful of how hard he had to work to pay for his undergraduate education, and how difficult it was for him to do so during the 1930s. This experience engendered a deep commitment to NJIT’s mission of nurturing the talent of promising students regardless of their personal economic circumstances.”
NJIT President Emeritus Saul F. Fenster spoke of York’s intellect and curiousity. “His affection for students was obvious,” Fenster noted. York, though, also had a talent for understanding how to make sense of the world. He especially understood how connected everything was—especially business, engineering and science.
York was a friend and donor to NJIT for more than three decades, enabling substantial improvements to university facilities and programs. In 1989, NJIT dedicated the Otto H. York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science in his honor. In 2002, York pledged $1 million to the chemical engineering department, endowing a fund for scholarships to attract promising students as well as to support research by faculty members. The department was subsequently renamed the Otto H. York Department of Chemical Engineering.
York graduated from Purdue University in 1934 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. In 1947, with a $1000 loan, he launched the Otto H. York Company and the firm into a major New Jersey corporation—Otto H. York Industries. The venture’s success was based on his invention of the York Mesh Demister. The device revolutionized the field of gas and liquid separation, and has been used by the petrochemical, chemical and pharmaceutical industries worldwide.
Although York eventually sold his company to Foster Wheeler Corporation, he continued to be deeply involved with the industry. In 1997, NJIT awarded York an honorary doctor of science degree.