Hendrickson retires after four decades at UD

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Hendrickson, who teaches the notorious organic chemistry class, sits behind his desk in his office. Photo by Bridget Kennedy.

There are many things to note when sitting in long-time chemistry professor Dr. William Hendrickson’s office. Large black and white photographs of mountainous landscapes and some smaller photos of basset hounds decorate his corner of the science department. One side of the desk is laden with shells, a large rock of quartz and the husk of some insect’s hive. Above a shelf of students’ research notebooks, a nerf gun sits, cocked.

“I forgot about that,” Hendrickson said, reaching for it. “It’s still loaded.”

Hendrickson has taught chemistry at UD since 1979. His desire to be a teacher goes back to his childhood and his proximity with Louisiana Tech University.

“The street I lived on was a dead-end street, and down at our end of the street was mostly college professors,” Hendrickson said. “The university was the major industry in Ruston. Most of my neighbors were professors. It seemed like a nice thing to be. I see these guys coming home from work at three in the afternoon and thought, ‘that looks pretty good.’”

“I didn’t particularly want to have a real job,” Hendrickson said with a smile.

Admittedly, Hendrickson’s first choice of study at Louisiana Tech would have been history.

“Chemistry wasn’t necessarily my favorite subject,” said Hendrickson. “It would have been history. But the sciences weren’t as competitive.”

Hendrickson specialized in free radical chemistry at Louisiana State University, where he received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He also met his wife there, and they got married during his second year of graduate school. They will celebrate their 48th anniversary this year.

“Back in the ’70s, teaching positions were hard to find,” Hendrickson said. “I had to do a two- year visiting assistant professorship at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Then I came over [to UD] in 1979.”

“Let’s see,” Hendrickson said, leaning back in his chair. “Been here ever since. Because we didn’t want to move again. We’re still in the same house.”

Hendrickson and his wife have two children and three grandchildren, with a fourth due April 22.

Much of Hendrickson’s free time is spent on his 20 acres in Bosque County, which he called the “top of the hill country.”

“In the mid ’90s I built the cabin on it,” Hendrickson said. “We go down there on the weekends and just hang out.” He pointed fondly to photos of his basset hounds on his file cabinets. “We’ve got three dogs, so they go down there and chase armadillos.”

Hendrickson became passionate about hiking after taking a trip to New Mexico as an adult. Now he looks for any opportunity to spend time in the mountains.

“That is the real reason I want to retire,” said Hendrickson. “In the sciences, we have the O’Hara Institute, so we’re working during the summer. Being an academic, we get some time off, but it’s when school is out. Which means if you wanna go anywhere, there’s a bunch of other people.”

“I already have a trip planned to Yellowstone in September,” Hendrickson said. “I don’t have any plans other than that. It would be nice to write a book.”

Though he looks forward to hiking more often, Hendrickson said he doesn’t “have any hobbies.”

“I just like to read,” Hendrickson said. He has remained a student of history throughout his life. “I get my books from the Irving Public Library, and it’s whatever they have on the shelf.”

Taking over the role of Organic Chemist in the fall will be Jonathan Dannatt from Michigan State University, Chair of the Chemistry department Dr. Ellen Steinmiller wrote in an email.

“In addition to being a long time faculty member,” Steinmiller wrote, “Dr. Hendrickson was also the chair of the chemistry department for over a decade and the director of the O’Hara Chemical Sciences Institute for 20 years.”

According to Steinmiller, Hendrickson has brought more than $1 million in funding via research grants to UD from the Robert A. Welch Foundation and the American Chemical Society. He has also co-authored 15 undergraduate student publications, and was advisor for the Student American Chemical Society Chapter.

“Many activities he started still continue today,” Steinmiller wrote. “For example, he is the expert on Mole Day celebrations and can be found on the UD mall at 6:02 AM on October 23rd each year with a group of students exploding oxygen and hydrogen balloons.”

Through his teaching at UD, Hendrickson has watched and appreciated the diversity of interests of his students. His own college experience was “very focused,” but he said UD has something unique.

“Our students here are still pretty focused, but they’ve got other interests,” Hendrickson said. “I’m always amazed at the quality of intellect and abilities of our students. We’ve got a music program, foreign languages, theater. We’ll have students with concentrations in theology and other areas. It’s amazing.”

But Hendrickson would have liked the chance to teach upper-level chemistry courses.

“Because of the restrictions on us since we are a small department and teach service courses, my teaching load is mostly made up of organic chemistry,” Hendrickson said. “We didn’t have that opportunity to have that much diversity in our curriculum. On the other hand, we didn’t have many students who wanted to take those kinds of classes anyhow. Students would rather go take a philosophy course. But again, our students are more interesting people than they would be otherwise.”

There are pros and cons to the small, four teacher chemistry department, said Hendrickson.

“It’s been really nice to work in such a close department,” Hendrickson said. “We sit out on the balcony and eat lunch together. It would be nice to have a larger department, but the nice thing about being the only organic chemistry teacher is that the students have to take me.”

Hendrickson is quick to call himself an introvert, but he loves to teach.

“I enjoy lecturing,” Hendrickson said. “I don’t like so much, quite honestly, the labs. We’re having to teach too [many] labs. If I could just lecture three classes, I’d probably stick around. But I also want to go to Yellowstone.”

Will he miss it?

“We’ll see,” he said with another smile. “What’s most rewarding is the students, and the interactions with the students. They’re hardworking, largely motivated and respectful. It’s been fun to teach.”

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