If Frank Kelley had not left a high-ranking position with the U.S. military in the late 1970s to run the University of Akron's polymer program, which of the following might not have happened:
* Creation of the university's College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
* Construction of the Goodyear Polymer Center.
* Establishment of a renowned polymer faculty.
* Emergence of the school as the largest academic polymer center in the U.S., with a strong reputation globally.
The answer is all of them.
Kelley was a key player in making all four realities, as well as other decisions that lifted the university's polymer program into national prominence.
He's now at a crossroad. Kelley is slated to retire this summer as dean of the college after 28 years at the helm. He said he isn't looking forward to stepping down, but knows it will happen sooner rather than later.
Kelley actually retired from the university in 2003 and was rehired as dean of the school for three years. That contract is coming to a close, a search committee has been formed and a consultant is seeking his replacement. Elizabeth J. Stroble, senior vice president and provost, officially announced his retirement in March.
If a successor isn't identified soon, though, Kelley could be asked to stay on for a while. He said he'd do it. However, the 72-year-old academic is proceeding with plans to close out his career at the university. He has other irons in the fire professionally and several personal projects he'd like to complete.
Sitting in his office in the Goodyear Polymer Center, Kelley said he knows what it's like to fulfill a dream.
That's what heading up Akron's polymer program has meant to him.
He arrived at the university 53 years ago after graduating from high school, where the gifted athlete starred in football and track. ``Sports and girls interested me most in high school, but I got good grades in science and I went to work at Goodyear'' as a storage clerk, he said.
A year later, in 1953, Kelley decided there had to be more to life, and with his parents' support enrolled at the University of Akron. ``No one in our family had ever gone to college,'' he said. ``In fact, no one else had graduated from high school.''
His father became ill during his freshman year, and Kelley joined the Goodyear ``flying squadron,'' college students who learned jobs at the plant and filled in when needed, while attending college full time.
He worked there part time for two years before landing a job as an undergraduate research assistant at the Institute of Polymer Science. He also was part of the school's Air Force ROTC program.
It took five years, but in 1958 Kelley received his bachelor's degree in chemistry and a year later his master's in polymer chemistry. He earned a doctorate in polymer chemistry in 1961.
Kelley for a short while was a rubber chemist for Union Carbide Corp. before entering the Air Force. He was assigned to the rocket propulsion laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California as a rocket scientist, which turned out to be a gigantic break.
Onward and upward
His assignment called for him to conduct research and manage technical programs associated with solid-propellant mechanical properties. That was right after the launch of Sputnik and the first orbit of Earth by the Russians, so there was plenty of money available for rockets in the U.S., which was in a catch-up mode. Kelley became a key member of the team that made giant inroads in space travel.
After he was discharged from the service in 1964, he remained at the laboratory as a civilian attached to the Air Force. Kelley became chief of propellant development in 1966, chief of advanced plans in 1970 and chief scientist, the highest-ranking civilian at Edwards, in 1971. He was responsible for the technical content of the entire rocket propulsion program.
An even better opportunity came along in 1973 when Kelley was named chief scientist at the Air Force materials laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. He spent his last two years there as lab director, overseeing a workforce of 250 and an annual budget of about $150 million.
His career path took an abrupt change, however, while at a technical meeting in New Orleans. Kelley said he was approached by Maurice Morton, head of the University of Akron's Institute of Polymer Science, who told him he had reached the mandatory retirement age at the school. Morton asked if Kelley would consider it a step backward to become director of the polymer school.
``Of course this is the one job I really wanted,'' he said. ``To be director of polymer science was sort of a dream come true. So it took me about 30 seconds to make up my mind to leave the Air Force, which didn't go over too well in Washington.''
Back home again
It was 1978, and after 17 years in or connected to the Air Force, the 43-year-old Kelley was in an entirely new environment. ``It was tough entering the academic game from essentially a military organization,'' he said.
When he returned to Akron he was a full professor and director of the institute, but he did not have tenure. ``I had to earn it while trying to build and evolve a program,'' he said. He did all three while giving new shape to the polymer program and hiring additional faculty.
In 1982, Kelley learned that Jim White, a polymer engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, was frustrated because his proposals to build a polymer program at the school were voted down.
``I knew the importance of polymer engineering as a discipline because there were something like 83 metallurgical engineering programs in the country at the time,'' Kelley said. His mentor in the Air Force had emphasized that engineers needed to learn how to deal with metal, concrete and ceramics, but they knew little about polymers.
``And yet they have to design with polymers, and the industry has grown so large,'' Kelley said.
He discussed bringing White aboard with the new dean of the engineering college. The dean liked the idea and by 1984 White came to Akron and launched the polymer engineering department in the College of Engineering.
That was the last piece of the foundation needed to eventually create the College of Polymer Sciences and Polymer Engineering. Bill Muse, newly arrived president of the university, asked Kelley what it would take to move the polymers program to the front ranks of the world. Kelley said he basically outlined what was needed and Muse ``asked our planning committee for this world-class center that he wanted to see at the university.''
The committee, which included Kelley and White, spent nine months developing a plan to pull all the school's polymer programs together under one administrative structure.
The miracle of '88
What followed ``was almost a miracle in and of itself because two deans had to give up two of their most productive research departments and it had to go through the university council, which was kind of a debating forum with committees,'' he said.
The planning committee ultimately approved the creation of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, and a search for a dean to run it commenced.
``I applied and, fortunately, I got the job, which was good because I had no other plans at the time,'' Kelley said.
The college was inaugurated in 1988, and the 146,000-square-foot Goodyear Polymer Center opened in 1991.
Since then, the college has grown dramatically and most recently branched out into nanotechnology, medical and biotechnology. Kelley sees uni- versities like Akron becoming research arms for industry, because a number of traditional polymer businesses have backed away from fundamental research.
``We patent like crazy,'' the dean said. ``We probably have 160 active patents. Some of those have led to spinoff companies - some by the faculty, some by students. And we're building partnerships with other universities, industry and government labs.''
But a new day is dawning for Kelley, if a suitable replacement is found to run the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering anytime soon.
At that time, Kelley could expand his role with Romeo, Mich.-headquartered Romeo Injection Molding Co., where he serves on the board of directors. The chairman has asked him to consider doing more with the manufacturer, and it's a prospect that intrigues Kelley.
He also wants to spend more time with his wife of 46 years, Judith, and five grandchildren. And they're building a log home an hour's drive from the university.
All of that aside, ``I had no real intention to retire,'' he said. ``I felt we might lose important members of our faculty if I retired, so I'm very concerned about mentioning it. But it would be irresponsible not to have an extension plan in place.''
Kelley said: ``I can stay in the saddle. And yet I know we should proceed with haste.''
The staff and faculty at the college would be more pleased if he remained in that saddle a lot longer.
``He's the most ethical, honest, fair man I know,'' said assistant Rosemary Kolton. ``He's above reproach. I dread seeing him leave. We all do.''