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Former Exxon Leader and Chair Holder Have Engineering Chemistry

Posted by on Friday, September 11, 2009 in Fall 2009, Impact.

H. Eugene McBrayer (right) and Peter Pintauro, the newly named H. Eugene McBrayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, discuss fuel cell technology in  Pintauro’s lab.
H. Eugene McBrayer (right) and Peter Pintauro, the newly named H. Eugene McBrayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, discuss fuel cell technology in Pintauro’s lab.

Blend early responsibility with a father’s Depression-era work ethic and a mother’s emphasis on education. Add a competitive nature, a much needed academic scholarship to Vanderbilt University in 1950, and a fortuitous summer job as a junior chemical engineer with Esso Standard Oil Company between junior and senior years.

This formula produces a student from Birmingham, Ala., who earns a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a job at graduation in 1954 with Esso in Baton Rouge, La.

For the next 38 years, H. Eugene McBrayer, BE’54, made his career with that company—which would later become ExxonMobil Corp., Fortune 500’s No. 1 largest American corporation in 2009.

A path that began at Vanderbilt led to a fulfilling career and a blessed life. “It made my life in many ways,” says McBrayer, who retired as president of Exxon Chemical in 1992. Now McBrayer and his wife, Fay, have endowed a chair in the School of Engineering as part of their commitment to education and Vanderbilt. “I have been extremely fortunate in life. Now it’s time to pay it forward,” he says.

Peter N. Pintauro is the first recipient of the H. Eugene McBrayer Chair of Chemical Engineering. The nationally recognized scholar and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering says he’s honored to hold the chair named after McBrayer.

“Endowed professorships bring prestige to the chair holder, to the benefactor who funded the professorship and to the university,” Pintauro says. “Often such chairs are endowed by alumni like Mr. McBrayer, and in this regard, they establish or reinforce critical links between a department’s past and present.”

Industry Leader

In his career with Exxon, McBrayer moved quickly through the corporation’s management ranks, eventually heading Exxon Enterprises, Exxon Nuclear Co. and finally Exxon Chemical. In the year he retired, he was also awarded the prestigious Chemical Industry Medal given by the America International Group of the Society of Chemical Industry.

While leading Exxon’s chemical business, he served as chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) and as a trustee of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award Program. As an officer of the CMA, he and several other chemical company CEOs launched Responsible Care, which has become one of the most successful safety, health and environmental performance improvement initiatives in American industry.

McBrayer’s energy industry background makes Pintauro’s honor as the H. Eugene McBrayer Chair even more appropriate. Pintauro’s research focuses on developing new membranes for hydrogen/air, direct methanol and alkaline fuel cells; modeling species transport in ion-exchange membranes; and investigating electrochemical methods for organic synthesis.

The biggest impact of this research will be on the performance (power output) of fuel cells, which will lead to less expensive fuel cells. Better membranes will improve fuel cell performance and durability, which will ultimately make fuel cells more attractive for portable, automotive and stationary power applications.

“Both of us share the belief that chemical engineering and electrochemistry will play a major role in the world’s energy future,” McBrayer says of Pintauro. “Fuel cells have been around for a long time. Their potential energy conversion efficiency has always been compelling; however, high cost has held back widespread application. Research by Peter and his team could significantly rebalance the cost equation and their membrane developments could have significant application in advanced batteries.”

Pintauro team member Jun Lin (right) briefs Gene McBrayer on a fuel cell research project.
Pintauro team member Jun Lin (right) briefs Gene McBrayer on a fuel cell research project.

Giving Back

Endowing the H. Eugene McBrayer Chair in Chemical Engineering at the School of Engineering fits nicely into the philanthropic goals of Fay and Gene McBrayer, high school sweethearts who have been married 56 years.

Although they support a number of organizations and causes, the couple has two main philanthropic interests: the Vanderbilt School of Engineering and the Museum of Flight, located in Seattle, where they now live.

“I was so blessed to be able to go to Vanderbilt,” says McBrayer, who couldn’t have attended the School of Engineering without the academic scholarship offered by the university. “I had to maintain a 2.5 grade point average out of a 3.0 every quarter to keep my scholarship. That was a high standard.” He says he had to work hard to keep it while holding a variety of odd jobs and finding summer employment.

A Living Legacy

The McBrayers have previously supported the School of Engineering through the endowed H. Eugene McBrayer and Fay W. McBrayer Scholarship and through the creation of the H. Eugene McBrayer and Fay W. McBrayer multipurpose room adjacent to Adams Atrium in Featheringill Hall, which was completed in 2001.

“I see this type of gift as a crucial element in student and faculty recruitment and retention,” says McBrayer, a member of the School’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni. “Vanderbilt engineering has always attracted excellent students, but it needs more endowed chairs to attract the very best faculty and to further important research.”

In both his interests at VUSE and the Museum of Flight, the engineer and former corporate head advocates STEM—education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And he remains passionate about the power of a chemical engineering degree.

“Chemical engineering is still a key discipline for young people who want to make a real difference in high-tech society,” McBrayer says. “Oh, there may be more popular engineering disciplines today, like biomedical or environmental, but I believe chemical is still the best at teaching young people how to think analytically.”