Argonne scientist Walter McFall dies at 87; recruited, encouraged ‘countless’ women and minority engineers
After a family tragedy, he started working at age 7. “He was robbed of his childhood,” said his sister. “But he was a person who did his best wherever he was.”
Walter McFall was a Black chemical engineer who knew what it felt like to be the only one in the room.
He wanted that to change.
He helped many young women and people of color break into engineering and “did it with humor and compassion,” said Anne Perusek, publications director at the Society of Women Engineers.
At SWE career fairs, he’d rewrite student resumes and demonstrate how to greet a potential boss with a hearty handshake. He’d bring a computer program and high-quality paper for fledgling engineers to create their first business cards.
“The students would come running down as soon as the session was over and start making them,” said Betty Shanahan, former CEO of SWE.
His presence alone was powerful.
Tanya Griffin said she was the only Black woman majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when she graduated in 1987.
“Just seeing him at various minority engineering career fairs and events, it meant the world,” said Griffin, a human resources manager at Argonne National Laboratory. “Without motivators like that, I don’t know how I would have stayed in the discipline.”
Mr. McFall, 87, who’d been in failing health, died Aug. 26 at the University of Chicago Medical Center, according to his son Kevin.
During a 41-year career at Argonne – as a scientist and then as a recruiter – he encouraged other engineers to go back to school to get PhDs and helped them with homework when they struggled.
“There are countless women and minorities out there who are paying it forward because of Walter’s influence,” said Shanahan, an associate vice president at DePaul University.
“Thousands of students were influenced by his mentorship,” said Karen Horting, CEO and executive director of the Chicago-based Society of Women Engineers, which counts 41,000 members worldwide.
He had to go to work at age 7. That winter, milkmen had to halt their horse-drawn deliveries because of icy pavements. “The horses could break their legs,” said his sister Jacqueline Scott.
To get milk, his father Walter went out to the Harris grocery store at 59th and Prairie but was shot and killed en route in an attempted robbery.
The Harris family offered Walter, the oldest boy, a job to help his family. Every day but Sunday, he would separate the Canfields from the Coca-Colas, sorting pop bottles people returned to get a few cents of deposit back.
“He had a wagon, and he would deliver groceries,” his sister said. “On Saturday morning, he would get up early because two neighbors would have him come and clean their bathroom.”
“He was robbed of his childhood,” she said. “But he was a person who did his best wherever he was.”
Mr. McFall’s mother got a job at a company that made electrical equipment for the military. At the end of World War II, she and other women workers had to give up their positions to returning GIs.
His mother went on to work as a lab technician at the University of Chicago and later, Argonne National Laboratory. Her duties included cleaning glassware used in experiments.
Mr. McFall called her his science role model.
“I was watching Mom and the kind of people she was associating with, and I kept telling myself, ‘Gee, these are fun people. They do important things,’ ’’ he said in an oral history with SWE.
After graduating from Englewood High School in 1952, he attended Woodrow Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King. He served in the U.S. Army Reserves and began working at Argonne. He became a research scientist there after earning a chemical engineering degree at Illinois Institute of Technology in 1971.
Back then, during budget crunches, he’d hear grousing about women engineers from men who thought the women should get laid off first, he said in the SWE oral history.
“One young fellow came in and said, ‘I’ve got a wife and two children, and there’s this damn woman whose husband works downtown at the university as a professor, and she should be fired, and I should get her job,’ ” Mr. McFall recalled. “And I quietly asked him, ‘Why is that? Her program is not affected by the layoffs.’ He said, ‘Because she’s a woman, and I’m a man.’ ... I’m saying, ‘Gee, and I thought as a young man of color I was affected by some discrimination.’’’
In addition to SWE, Mr. McFall recruited from the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates.
He retired in 2001.
He enjoyed tennis and cross-country skiing. He helped found a running club at Argonne and ran in several Chicago marathons.
His daughter Kelli and brother Ronald died before him. In addition to his son Kevin and sister Jacqueline Scott, Mr. McFall is survived by his former wife Susan, sister Larcena Vaughn and a granddaughter. At his Sept. 11 memorial, one of the awards he was most proud of rested on his casket: SWE’s Rodney D. Chipp award for supporting women engineers.