Obituary: John D. Metzger / Founder of Pitt nuclear engineering program

July 24, 1953 - Oct. 12, 2012

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A founder of the only nuclear engineering program in Western Pennsylvania, John D. Metzger wanted the people around him, from his students and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh to his own children, to know they could count on him.

Mr. Metzger, director of the nuclear engineering program and associate professor in Pitt's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, tried hard to memorize each student's name. He could teach even the most complicated material in layman's terms they could understand. And outside of class, he made an extra effort to ask students how they were doing, offer advice if they were struggling or push a skeptical undergraduate to try to achieve what seemed impossible.

Despite all that hard work in his professional life, Mr. Metzger also managed to take his three children to sports practices and games, on trips to camp in the Catskill Mountains or see musicals on Broadway, and to lend his advice and help when they needed it, too, said his son, Matthew Metzger.

"Upon his passing, we realized how busy he was, how much he did," said Matt Metzger, 25. "It was important to him that he was a man of his word, and if he said he was going to do something he did it."

John Metzger of Irwin died of a heart attack in his sleep Friday while traveling in Atlanta for work, according to colleagues and family members. He was 59.

Born the son of German immigrants Peter and Lukrezia Metzger, Mr. Metzger grew up in Reading, Berks County, where his parents worked in a textile mill, according to Matthew Metzger.

John graduated from Reading's Wilson High School in 1971. He earned a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1975, a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1975 and his doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of New Mexico in 1989.

Mr. Metzger worked as a staff member of the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico from 1984 to 1990, then went to work as a research engineer at the Westinghouse Savannah River Company from 1990 to 1991. He worked as a senior technical specialist for the Space Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Program at Northrop Grumman from 1991 to 1998, then as a research associate professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1998 to 2005.

Mr. Metzger joined Pitt in 2007 as a part-time lecturer and became a full-time associate professor in the Swanson School of Engineering in 2010.

There, he helped develop the curriculum for Pitt's nuclear engineering program, which he built from the ground up with colleagues Larry Foulke, a nuclear engineering professor, and Minking Chyu, chairman of the mechanical engineering and materials science department. The three professors launched the program in 2007, making it the first and only nuclear track in Western Pennsylvania, according to the university.

Mr. Metzger's research focused on nuclear power and propulsion system designs, analysis and modeling, along with thermal-hydraulic designs, according to his colleagues. He also was responsible for securing substantial grant funding, including $2.4 million this year to support computer-modeling research into future generations of high-temperature nuclear reactors, a new radiation detection and measurement laboratory, and a fellowship for a student pursuing a career in a nuclear field.

Despite those accomplishments, students said Mr. Metzger was never anything but down-to-earth and caring with them -- although he did love to tease them at every opportunity.

Even with classes that sometimes stretched to over two hours, Mr. Metzger managed to teach complicated concepts without losing his students' interest, said Rita Patel, who graduated from the undergraduate materials science engineering program with a certificate in nuclear science in April.

"You were never bored the whole time," said Ms. Patel, 21. "He was always engaging the class -- he would pick on people randomly and he would crack jokes, sometimes at his own expense."

Ms. Patel liked her first class with Mr. Metzger so much that, on a whim, she took a class in nuclear science from him the following semester, and another in the spring. And in the meantime, she worked with him to help start a local chapter of the American Nuclear Society, of which he served as adviser.

So in January, when Mr. Metzger told her to try for a U.S. Department of Energy-funded fellowship -- even though the deadline was in just 10 days -- she applied with his recommendation. She became one of just 31 students in the United States -- and the only one in Pennsylvania -- to receive the fellowship's generous award of $155,000 over three years to pursue her studies in nuclear science at Pitt.

Mr. Metzger always did his best for his students, she said.

"If he could help you, regardless of whether it was in or out of class, he wanted to help you," Ms. Patel said. "That was his ultimate goal."

Mr. Metzger also held several patents and was a member of several professional associations, including the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the National Heat Transfer Conference.

In addition to son Matt, Mr. Metzger is survived by his mother and daughters Rachel and Jennifer Metzger.

A viewing will be held from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday at the Edward J. Kuhn Funeral Home in West Reading with a funeral service to follow. The burial will take place at Pleasant View Cemetery in Spring. Memorial contributions may be made to the Swanson School of Engineering or the University of Tennessee Department of Engineering.

obituaries

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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