Linda Huff was the only woman in the chemical engineering class of 1970 at Purdue University.
On her first day in school, “No one would sit next to her,” said her husband Jim.
Women were expected to wear skirts and pantyhose to class. When she graduated, a recruiter from Alcoa told her “they only hired married woman,” her husband said.
“She experienced a fair amount of discrimination,” he said. “All it did was make her more determined.”
She got offers from Exxon and DuPont but decided to go to work for Procter & Gamble, where she fried up a lot of corn chips for the company’s quest to make a Pringles-style version of Fritos. She also worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she monitored industrial wastewater discharges. And, in 1975, she earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Job offers started to come in. She got to be good at negotiating. She’d pull out the resume of her husband — also a chemical engineer — and say she needed a two-for-one offer if she was going to move. They both wound up at the IIT Research Institute.
When their daughter Laura was born, she left and founded her own consulting firm.
A week before the 1979 birth of their second child, Tim, the couple opened a consulting firm in La Grange — Huff & Huff — where their kids played at their feet while she solved problems like protecting the rare Hine’s emerald dragonfly during the construction of the Interstate 355 extension. It grew into a 35-employee firm known for solving environmental problems and, in 2014, merged with GZA GeoEnvironmental.
Mrs. Huff, 68, died May 25 of bladder cancer at her Western Springs home.
“She built what is arguably the best environmental engineering firm in the state,” said Ken Nelson, a civil engineer and management consultant.
“She just always found creative solutions,” said civil engineer Doug Knuth, including reconfiguring sewers to lessen water runoff into Lake Michigan from Lake Shore Drive.
And she made Huff & Huff feel like a family business, colleagues said, organizing chili cook-offs and pet parades.
She grew up Linda Patton in rural Ohio, where one neighbor still sewed with an old treadle machine and another perfumed the community while making barrels of sauerkraut. To heat the house, “She had to shovel coal,” said her husband. She and her siblings Mike and Melanie sold the family’s corn and tomatoes at a roadside stand.
A high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue chemical engineering. During sophomore year at Purdue, the future Huff & Huff met on adjacent lab benches. When she spilled acid on her nylons, he reminded her not to rinse it with water, or the chemical reaction would increase the burn. They dated through college.
Her male classmates grew to admire and respect her, her husband said.
“If Linda was upset about something, the guys would come find me and say, ‘What’s the matter with Linda?’ They were ready to take me outside and beat me up,” he said.
She led the men in a mini-revolt against a professor who rarely showed up. He’d let graduate students do the teaching instead.
“The entire class followed her out of the room and down to [the professor’s] office, where she confronted him,” her husband recalled. “He never missed another lecture.”
After graduation, she worked for Procter & Gamble while he got his master’s in environmental engineering from Purdue.
She was ready to get engaged. He wasn’t. He noticed her letters decreased as her Ohio social life improved.
“She’s dating all these rich chemical engineers,” he said. “They were taking her to Cincinnati Reds games and four-star restaurants. I figured out it was time to grow up.”
He drove to Cincinnati and proposed. They were married for 46 years till her death.
As they raised their family, she coached soccer and led Girl Scout troops.
“She’d have them tromping through streams, finding the insects in larval stages,” her husband said. “You’d tell them which ones were going to turn into beautiful dragonflies.”
In 1978, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat on what’s now called the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Purdue honored her in 1991 as an “Outstanding Chemical Engineer.” In 2000, she received its prestigious “Distinguished Engineering Alumni” award.
Mrs. Huff is also survived by two grandchildren. Services have been held.