Chemical engineer, Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award recipient, and longest-serving SWE editorial board member who supported and inspired many
When Walter McFall received SWE’s Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award in 1997, it embodied his many years of effort, both seen and unseen, to support and champion women in engineering and science.
McFall described his mother as his first role model in science. She worked in a university chemical lab following his father’s death when he, the oldest of four children, was quite young. Despite her lack of formal education — she started out washing lab equipment — she became a skilled and valued lab technician. Overhearing conversations with her friends and colleagues, McFall decided that they were interesting people, that the work they did was important and was something he, too, would like to do.
He received his B.S. in chemical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Though his education was disrupted by a stint in the Army, upon his return to Chicago he was hired by Argonne National Laboratory and finished his degree through a company-sponsored program. While enjoying his work at Argonne, he also witnessed the bias and discrimination women engineers and scientists faced, particularly during times of economic downturn. Describing himself as having been a bit “naïve” on this matter, when male colleagues complained that women rather than men should lose their jobs during funding cuts, he asked them, “Why is that?”
Eventually, his empathetic nature and people skills led him from basic and applied research to human resources and engineering and scientific recruitment. He supported SWE conferences and career fairs as well as those of the other diversity engineering and scientific societies, including the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and others. He built relationships with university engineering programs across the United States, traveling from coast to coast, throughout the Midwest and the South, supporting fledgling SWE university sections and women in engineering programs as they came into being. As a role model and mentor, he encouraged countless women and minority students who went on to establish successful engineering careers.
McFall led workshops that instructed students how to write a resume, create a business card, and navigate a career fair. When he joined the SWE editorial board, those workshop presentations formed the basis of an article, “How to Negotiate a Career Fair.” Because he dispensed such solid advice, the article became a “Career Toolbox Classic” and for several years was published in SWE Magazine in conjunction with the annual conference.
In keeping with the citation on his Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award, which read, “For his caring nature and dedication to motivating, counseling, and sponsoring women in their engineering education and professional development,” McFall continued to support and champion women in engineering long after his retirement. After 41 years, he left Argonne in 2001. He continued attending the annual SWE conference and served on the SWE editorial board another 16 years. He stepped down as the longest-serving member in 2017.
McFall died Aug. 26, 2021, in Chicago and is survived by his son, two sisters, and granddaughter. Demonstrating the depth of his connection to SWE and the cause of women in engineering, the Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award plaque was displayed with his casket.
Anne Perusek, SWE Director of Editorial and Publications
Sources: SWE archives, personal correspondence