Former engineering dean Karl Brenkert Jr. dies

Karl Brenkert Jr., 89, dean emeritus of the University of Mississippi School of Engineering and professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, died May 19 in Sun City West, Ariz.

Karl Brenkert Jr.

Popular with students and well-respected among UM deans, Brenkert helped boost the school's enrollment, budget and academic profile, adding professional disciplines and a doctoral program in engineering. A native of Detroit, he served as dean from 1964 to 1979 and continued to teach mechanical engineering courses until his retirement in 1989.

"Academically, the school made some giant steps under Karl; for example, we received accreditation throughout his tenure as dean," said K.P. George, professor emeritus of civil engineering. "The school became known all over the country for its engineering science program, and as research funding increased, the graduate enrollment increased by leaps and bounds."

Brenkert earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1944 from the University of Michigan, where he was chapter president of Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity and belonged to Tau Beta Pi national engineering honor society. He worked as an engineer for Brenkert Light Projection Co. and RCA Victor Corp. before continuing his education at Stanford University, where he completed his master's and doctoral degrees in engineering mechanics in 1952 and 1955, respectively.

He authored "Elementary Theoretical Fluid Mechanics," a widely used textbook, and he held several patents in the motion picture projector industry.

He was an associate professor of fluid mechanics at both the University of Alabama and Michigan State University before becoming assistant dean of engineering at Auburn University. After three years at Auburn, he served as program director for the Science Facilities Evaluation Group at the National Science Foundation in Washington D.C.

"Dean Brenkert first came to the university as part of an accreditation inspection team," said Russell Aven, professor emeritus of chemical engineering. "The administration was impressed with him, and when Dean (Frederick) Kellogg left for Memphis State in 1964, they asked Brenkert to come in and take over as dean."

One of Brenkert's first moves was to strengthen the school's research component by hiring faculty members proficient in research, often from prestigious engineering schools across the country. That strategy began to pay off almost immediately, said Sam DeLeeuw, professor emeritus of civil engineering, who came to UM from Yale University in 1965 as department chair.

"During my first year, a committee hired by the board of the Institutions of Higher Learning visited us, looking at the possibility of consolidating the engineering programs among the state universities," DeLeeuw recalled. "This happened again three or four years later. Both committees included respected national leaders of engineering, and both committees recommended continuing the Ole Miss engineering school."

Many researchers across the country credit Brenkert for nurturing their careers. One of them, Vijay Gupta, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado, was awarded the 2008 Robert E. Horton Medal, the highest international honor in the field of hydrology as a geophysical science, by the American Geophysical Union.

"I flourished in research in scientific hydrology to solve challenging engineering problems due to Karl's unique support that set the stage for what I would accomplish in later years," said Gupta, who joined the Ole Miss faculty as an assistant professor of civil engineering in 1977. "He told me, 'If I could do what you do, then I would not be dean. The next best thing I can do is to support faculty like you.'"

Brenkert himself was recognized for his effectiveness in the classroom and was named in 1971 as one of the Outstanding Educators of America. Many of his students affectionately referred to him as "Sweet Old Brenkert."

"He would often bet Cokes on student GPAs," DeLeeuw said. "If a student didn't make the GPA and brought the equivalent money for a Coke, Brenkert wouldn't accept it. He would say, 'The bet was a Coke, not the money to buy a Coke.'"

His honors included a Distinguished Engineering Service award from the Mississippi Engineering Society, the 1988 UM Engineer of Distinction award and inclusion in "Who's Who in America" and "Who's Who in American Men of Science."

Also known as a fierce competitor, Brenkert enjoyed playing tennis and board games, particularly games of strategy. Students often visited his house on weekends for marathon board game sessions, and Brenkert generally listed himself on score cards as "The Old Pro."

Survivors include Brenkert's wife of 66 years, Elizabeth "Betty" Brenkert of Sun City West; sons Karl "Buzz" Brenkert III of Cincinnati, Scott Brenkert of Rio Rico, Ariz., and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (ret.) Eric Brenkert of Monument, Colo.; daughters Gail Brenkert of Spokane, Wash., and Dr. Pam Reband of Lake Havasu City, Ariz,; one sister, Virginia Tiefel of Eau Claire, Wis.; eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Services were held May 22 at Sunland Memorial Park in Sun City. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to The Elizabeth and Karl Brenkert Scholarship Endowment Fund in Mechanical Engineering at UM.