John Earnhardt was surrounded by farmers as a boy growing up in Salisbury, N.C. “I was just a little country boy who knew how to milk a cow,” he says.
So, naturally, he assumed he would be a farmer when he grew up. Earnhardt once told someone he planned to have the biggest farm around, never mind that he didn’t have much land or money at the time.
Fortunately, Earnhardt also happened to be pretty good at math and science. So his interest was piqued one Sunday when one of the visitors to the church was an engineer. It sounded like interesting work to Earnhardt.
So when he arrived at NC State, Earnhardt was ready to become an engineer. Being from a small town, Earnhardt was struck by how big the campus was when he arrived in 1959. “It was big, although not compared to now,” he says.
Earnhardt, who now serves on the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Advisory Board for the College of Engineering, says engineers still relied on slide rules in those days. While he appreciates the technological advances made with computers, Earnhardt says something was lost when the slide rule was replaced. “You had to think through problems,” he says. “You had to talk with other people, collect the best thinking.”
Today, Earnhardt’s old slide rule hangs on a wall in his house in Mooresville, N.C. — an unfamiliar artifact to his children and grandchildren.
Earnhardt went on to graduate in 1963 with a degree in chemical engineering. One of his faculty advisers suggested that he consider pursuing graduate degrees, but Earnhardt was ready to get to work.
He ended up working for DuPont for 32 years at nine different locations. One of his first projects was helping develop the commercial process to make Nomex, a fire-resistant material, available for market. After retiring from DuPont, Earnhardt started his own environmental management consulting company. He’s also an accomplished bass singer in a barbershop quartet. His group, known as You Kids Get Off My Lawn!, finished 14th in the world championships in Florida in January.
Earnhardt returned to the Park Alumni Center today for the 50th reunion of the Class of 1963. About 130 alumni, family and friends will spend today and tomorrow revisiting some old haunts and seeing some new facilities like the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on Centennial Campus. Head football coach Dave Doeren is scheduled to speak at tonight’s Class of 1963 banquet. On Saturday, Chancellor Randy Woodson will speak at a luncheon welcoming new members into the Forever Club and the weekend’s festivities will end with a barbecue dinner at Vaughn Towers.
Earnhardt, permanent president of the Class of 1963, loves what NC State has become in in the 50 years since he graduated. “I’m proud of the work that comes out of here,” he says, “and the people I meet from here are all good people.”
Earnhardt says some of his classmates will be shocked to see how much the campus has grown over the past five decades. He says they will be impressed with what they see.
“I’m looking foward to the whole thing,” he says. “This school’s done so much for me.”