A Man and His Vision - An inspired approach to solving our world’s energy problem
Fehsenfeld enrolled in Purdue at age 17, knowing that he would end up leaving for World War II. He started his studies and joined the swim team, too — getting the most out of whatever college experience he could, including his first flying experience with the Purdue Glider Club.
On his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps; he was called up four months later and trained to fly P-47 Thunderbolts. Fehsenfeld flew 86 missions in Europe — most in the P-51 Mustang — over a little more than a year. He was awarded the Air Medal with three silver clusters and the Silver Star. When he finally took some leave after the European war ended, he headed to Lake Michigan for a vacation with his folks. He was there when he got news that the Japanese had surrendered.
Fehsenfeld returned to Purdue to continue working toward his mechanical engineering degree. He met Midge Cornelius, and within a few months they decided to marry. Both were still students when they tied the knot, which Fehsenfeld remembers as just the thing for that moment in his life: “It was nice to have the companionship, and it settled me down so I could focus on finishing my education.”
In 1948, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and went to work.
“I came from a family that ran a small petroleum marketing company,” Fehsenfeld said. “I was interested in the petroleum business and managed to get a job at a local oil refinery in Indianapolis.”
“We think there are many great places where environmental engineering can do constructive things, particularly in recycling and waste recovery.”
– Fred Fehsenfeld
While Fehsenfeld was a process engineer for Rock Island Refining Corp., its president, Lew Winkler, took him under his wing. “‘Wink’ was a very famous petroleum engineer and the past president of the Winkler-Koch Engineering Co., which built refineries all over the world,” Fehsenfeld recalled. “He taught me how to take a complicated engineering problem and simplify it so it was much easier to solve.”
Fehsenfeld spent three years redesigning the old refinery and helped supervise the construction of a new fluid catalytic cracking unit, but then a better offer arose.
“My father called and said the vice president of the heavy fuel department had resigned and asked me to take his place. He seduced me by paying me more money than I was making as a process engineer at the refining company.”
Fehsenfeld quickly found success in his new position and then branched out, expanding the company through a venture called The Heritage Group (THG), which now operates the country’s largest privately held environmental company. The companies of THG are also involved in highway construction, aggregate production, chemical production, oil refining, and petroleum marketing, as well as crude oil and natural gas production. The Heritage Research Group is part of that package and most closely related to the vision that Fehsenfeld has for Purdue.
His gift to Purdue establishes the Fehsenfeld Family Head of Environmental and Ecological Engineering. The Fehsenfeld family had previously established the Purdue Energy Fund to “provide some seed capital for anyone working to solve our energy problem,” as Fehsenfeld put it. Eventually it became clear that a bigger idea was in order.
“I was approached by Dr. John W. Sutherland of Purdue and Dr. Ken Price and Dr. Ralph Roper of Heritage Environmental Services LLC,” Fehsenfeld said. “They thought it would be good for there to be a focused plan of study for environmental and ecological engineering.”
Fehsenfeld was so taken with that idea that he offered to add to his original gift and devote those funds to the Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering.
“We think there are many great places where environmental engineering can do constructive things, particularly in recycling and waste recovery,” Fehsenfeld said. “And if a student wanted to get involved in this interesting industry, we thought it would be necessary to have this separate engineering division. What will happen now is that students will be exposed to mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering and bio-engineering. In other words, it is a division on its own that will utilize faculty from all the other engineering schools.
“This move by Purdue University complements its very fine engineering schools and continues to make it the world leader in engineering.”