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Science Professor John Kenney Retires

July 18, 2023 - 8 minute read

TRIBUTES ARE POURING IN as beloved science professor, visionary, and legendary grant-writer John Kenney announced his retirement after 22 years of shaping Concordia’s science programs and students.

“He’s one of the reasons I went into teaching, especially at Concordia,” says Lindsay Kane-Barnese ’05, associate professor of biology and chemistry. “His example, which all my professors set, but especially him, is why I came back to Concordia — to give back the way they gave to me.”

At a recent celebration on campus, a painting by art professor Sara Fletcher was unveiled to honor John and wife Inga, a longtime Concordia adjunct professor. The artwork, titled, “Love Lights the Way,” depicts the Kenneys walking hand-in-hand toward the CU Center, wearing their lab coats.

“John put his heart and mind into his students, not just in classes but in labs, observatories and interactions,” says Bret Taylor, professor of mathematics and dean of School of Arts and Sciences. “Everywhere you look, you see people who came under John’s guidance.”

That guidance was always forward-looking.

“He motivated students to see beyond their own personal abilities,” says Taylor. “For the university, he pushed us into a different realm with his vision, and he did that with every student he made a relationship with. He pushed them to think, what else could you do? How could you go even farther? That’s the legacy I see, is a person who motivated a university and its students to excel and see beyond what they thought they could do.”

One of Kenney’s earliest students, Evan Neidholt ’05, and wife April ’05 sent a video message from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to Kenney’s retirement celebration. April serves as the American liaison between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, working on projects such as the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway and Artemis, which is aiming for the moon and Mars. Evan works in the crew and thermal systems division at Johnson Space Center, and is a project specialist and instrumentation developer.

“I got a great start in engineering and instrumentation and chemical physics research in John’s lab,” Evan said. “Dr. Kenney and I came to Concordia in the same year, 2001. We started those labs there together. I learned how to do research, and that has served me my whole career and led to all kinds of opportunities I couldn’t have even dreamed of on my own.”

One particularly fond memory is when he and Dr. Kenney drove a U-Haul truck full of donated lab science equipment from Washington State to Irvine. Kenney had a knack for getting used science equipment for free.

“You can’t walk around Founders Hall without seeing some piece of equipment he got donated,” says Taylor. “People gave because they knew who he was and what he was about.”

April, who had Dr. Kenney for chemistry, said he not only got Evan started in research but pushed him to apply to his “reach school,” CalTech, where he finished his PhD. Evan then worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for seven years before moving to Houston to work at NASA.

“I can safely say we could not have done that without Dr. Kenney,” says April. “We want to take a moment to thank both of you for the work you’ve done in our lives.”

Professor Kane-Barnese also was a freshman in 2001, the same year Dr. Kenney joined the faculty.

“He was very interactive in his teaching, for example, jumping off the wall to demonstrate how gases behave,” she says. “One of the big things I took away from his labs was he taught us how things work and how to figure out what we were doing. He helped us make sense of what we were seeing yet gave us the space to learn.”

He also helped launch her into a career in the sciences. While working in his lab over the summer, she realized that studying science didn’t just mean going into medicine but could lead to graduate school, research, and teaching a host of subjects. Later, when she became a professor at Concordia, Kane-Barnese says Kenney became a mentor.

“He helped me keep in perspective how to serve my students, what to watch for, where to teach to,” she says. In her organic chemistry classes, she took a cue from him to make science applicable to everyday life, exploring how butter browns and what happens chemically when coffee is roasted and brewed.

“He was a great example of making things relatable,” she says.

Relatable — and fun. Kenney shot darts from a blow gun to help students understand momentum. He lit tables on fire, and shot a potato gun across campus from the back of Founders Hall. Famously, he taught countless students how to make liquid nitrogen ice cream.

“I will never forget learning about physics on a rollercoaster with Dr. Kenney,” wrote Toni Lerner ’03, MBA ’05 in a tribute. “Talk about experiential learning!”

Beyond the experiential learning, Kenney was a true visionary.

“John was the impetus behind getting the chemistry and physics majors up and running,” says Taylor. “He saw things in his mind that a lot of people couldn’t see, and he could see how it could work. He had enough spirit, motivation, and drive to pull people in those directions — and all for the good of students.”

That impact proved life-changing. Cecilia Eiroa Lledo ’15 called John and Inga “my adoptive science parents.” “I did research with them but they also helped me with my personal life and faith,” she told the magazine. 

Dr. Kenney also helped her find internships that fit her interests, and pointed her to Washington State, where she earned a PhD in chemistry. While there, Eiroa Lledo was awarded a prestigious Seaborg Fellowship to conduct research in nuclear chemistry at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She emailed Kenney to say, “I have been very blessed to have you both guide me and train me to be able to achieve such unthinkable goals! I would never have thought that I would work at such a prestigious institution before all the inspiration I received from you!!”

Another student, Grace Chong ’15, was accepted into doctoral programs at UCLA, USC, UCSD and Rice. She credited mentors Dr. Kenney and Dr. Lindsay Kane-Barnese.

“Working with them helped me recognize that I have passion for teaching,” Grace said. The fact that those students of his who pursued graduate studies excelled in their programs “tells us that our coursework is rigorous, our students are learning the fundamentals, and their extensive exposure to research as undergraduates is positioning them to be PhD students,” Kenney told the magazine.

And while Dr. Kenney was “very much a big-picture person,” as Kane-Barnese puts it, his picture was big enough to encompass the divine.

“John was always centered not just on science but on faith,” says Taylor. “He was clear that this is a connecting point to understand the Creator and what he has given.”

Many students and former co-workers commented on Kenney’s profound spiritual impact on their lives.

 “Your enthusiasm in showing God’s handiwork through the sciences has been a great encouragement to many, and to me!” wrote former campus pastor, Steven Borst ’88.

“Your passion for Christ and science are something I continue to carry with me in my professional and personal life,” wrote Chelsea Entzel ’11.

Dr. Kenney also secured some of the largest grants Concordia had ever received at the time. These included funding for a new piece of equipment for a telescope at the Great Basin Observatory in Nevada, and funding for the purchase and installation of telescopes and an observatory on Concordia’s own campus.

“I can sit at my desk at Concordia and make [the telescope] move, tell it what kind of data to take in, track this object or that object,” said Kenney about the Great Basin telescope, for which Concordia helped purchase a high-resolution spectrograph for exploring the universe in finer detail. “Students have every chance to discover exoplanets. There are more interesting projects in the heavens than there are astronomers or observatories to do them.”

Practical as ever, he also noted that by working with observatory equipment, “Students learn a tremendous amount” of transferable skills “which would be found in any scientific or technical workplace.”

Still thinking big on another occasion, Kenney helped physics major Susan Eschelbach ’21 lead a team to design and build a human-powered rover capable of surmounting various obstacles, for a NASA competition for high school and college students. The four-person team conceived, 3-D-modeled, and then built the rover, learning to weld and cut aluminum, and create suspension and steering systems.

“The steering system of this rover is absolutely amazing,” Kenney said of the project. “They did not win the final prize but got really good reviews for innovation and execution. It took a tremendous amount of effort on their part. They learned how to fundraise, to find sponsors, to engage specific experts when they got stuck — even go to a local bike shop to learn more about how gears work.”

In 2022, John won the Distinguished Educator of the Year award given by the Irvine Chamber of Commerce to the year’s stand-out educator in any public or private school, college or university. It was simply confirmation of what a generation of students already knew.

“You both are a wonderful gift to Concordia and your legacy will continue to inspire your co-workers to serve students and the Lord,” said Richard Lewis ’18. “Thank you both for all you have poured into Concordia and the beautiful legacy you graciously leave for generations to come!” wrote Leah Roney, MA ’22.

“It has been an honor to serve with you these past years at Concordia,” wrote Dr. Eugene Kim. “You have been an inspiration, a prayer warrior, and a servant leader. Our campus has been enlivened by your ministry, and we will miss you. Your impact will live on.”

A second farewell gathering was held on campus especially for students — an ice cream social at which students made liquid nitrogen ice cream.

"Love Lights the Way" painting of the Kenneys by staff member and artist, Sara Flecter

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