John C. Berg, a beloved professor of chemical engineering, receives this year's honor.
John C. Berg can’t recall wanting to be a teacher, which is kind of unusual for someone who was named the recipient of the UW’s 2023 Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award.
Oh, he loved his undergraduate studies at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and went to grad school at UC Berkeley because he wanted to continue learning. He thought he would join some company’s research organization in chemical engineering. UW was his only university interview, and having loved hiking in the Pacific Northwest, he jumped at the chance when he was offered a job on the faculty in chemical engineering. That was 57 years ago.
During those six decades, he has earned a reputation as one of the University’s most beloved professors. A common refrain among his students: “John is the best teacher I ever had.” He is a role model for dedication, unpretentiousness and sincerity. His teaching, mentorship and support of students is unmatched.
Students from as far back as the 1960s still marvel at his meticulous, thoughtfully prepared and well-organized lectures, homework and tests. “As his teaching assistant, I observed first-hand the time and energy he put into preparing his lectures and labs,” says Jud Virden, ’83, ’91. “His office door was always open to students who needed additional help or just needed to talk.”
Adds Mary Armstrong, ’79: “John’s enthusiasm for chemical engineering courses was catching. He could explain complex principles in an understandable way and tie them to real-life applications.”
“Dr. Berg had a profound impact on our family, having taught myself, my son Richard and his children, Katie and Evan,” says Donald Clasen, ’70. “All four of us have had or are having great chemical engineering careers that have taken us to many places in the U.S. and throughout the world. Of all the terrific teachers at the University, Dr. Berg was one of the very best.”
Former student Scott Emory perhaps summed it up best: “I didn’t realize till years after graduating that what John did was to teach us how to think logically and live compassionately. To say John, more than anyone else, has had a lifelong impact on me, both professionally and personally, would not be an exaggeration. I am privileged to say that my relationship with John did not end there—he has been one of my most treasured friends ever since.”
Looking back, Berg says, “I found classroom teaching to be extremely rewarding. It was at the same time very daunting, as I realized what an important impact I was having on these great young people. One of the biggest positive surprises was how teaching gave me an opportunity to keep on learning. I learned that no two students are alike, each has his or her own perspective, and I had (and have) something to learn from all of them.”
Created in 2017, the Distinguished Teaching Legacy Award honors a UW teacher, living or not, who has influenced and inspired students long after they graduated.