CEAS Remembers Alumnus John Christenson

By: Shannon Frohme
Date: January 19, 2016

The late John M. Christenson, PhD, brought extensive value to the lives of nuclear engineering students at the College of Engineering and Applied Science during his time as professor (1970-2010) and director of the college’s former nuclear engineering program.

John Christenson, former CEAS nuclear engineering professor, and wife Dorothy “Dot” Christenson

John Christenson, former CEAS nuclear engineering professor, and wife Dorothy “Dot” Christenson

John Christenson first joined the University of Cincinnati faculty as an assistant professor of nuclear engineering in 1970. The former nuclear engineering program was housed under the College of Engineering and Applied Science Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME), previously known as the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Nuclear Engineering (MINE). He became the director of the nuclear and radiological engineering program in the early 1980's.

Throughout their 50 years of marriage, John and Dorothy “Dot” Christenson, were known for their activism in racial and social justice issues. The couple also shared a great love of the outdoors, completing over 45 years of back country and international back packing and cross country ski trips. Both became pilots in 1958 and used this hobby to transport patients to and from University and Children's Hospital as Angel Pilots. John was one of the few engineering faculty who joined the AAUP strike and picketed on campus for pay raises in the 1970’s. Dot recollects, “John was a major advocate for his students. During his time at UC, not only did he integrate the engineering programs with help from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), but in 2001 he initiated the Tuskegee Bridges Program to spark awareness and recruit underrepresented minority students to pursue engineering degrees.”

Christenson (second from back left) and Henry Spitz with US nuclear engineering researchers at Areva NC (formerly COGEMA) nuclear waste treatment facility in France, July 2000

Christenson (second from back left) and Henry Spitz with US nuclear engineering researchers at Areva NC (formerly COGEMA) nuclear waste treatment facility in France, July 2000

The program, initially known as the UC Nuclear and Radiological Engineering-Tuskegee (UCNRE-TU) Bridge Building Project, recruited top students at Alabama Tuskegee University for a six-week intensive summer residency program at UC. At the end of the summer, professors Ivan Maldonado, Henry Spitz and John Christenson took the students on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, the students had the opportunity to visit the National Institute of Standards of Technology Center for Neutron Research, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy. UCNRE-TU experienced several years of success and numerous students enrolled in the CEAS nuclear engineering graduate program, thanks to the devotion and nurturing of John Christenson.

Henry Spitz, PhD, CEAS professor and director of nuclear and radiological engineering program, recalls Christenson’s commitment to his students:

John was one of the originators of a new academic program (ACCEND) that offered undergraduate engineering students an opportunity to obtain a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in five years, including their co-op quarters, by taking “online”, videoed classes while they were away from campus on co-op assignment. The combined BS-MS program required that students spend one additional summer quarter after graduating with the BS degree in order to complete the MS research thesis. Christenson’s online BS-MS curriculum was implemented several years before online classes became a contemporary reality. Although a highly intensive and rigorous program, several students participated in the dual degree program, achieved the MS in nuclear engineering and have been professionally employed in the nuclear industry. I feel especially privileged to have worked alongside John. He always encouraged me to pursue objectives beyond the ordinary and to seek new and unusual methods to solve problems and overcome obstacles. I owe much of my success to his persistence in moving me towards greater achievement.
John and Dot Christenson (far right), Alvin Shaperio and Henry Spitz (front row) at a 1970’s CEAS mechanical and nuclear engineering faculty party

John and Dot Christenson (far right), Alvin Shaperio and Henry Spitz (front row) at a 1970’s CEAS mechanical and nuclear engineering faculty party

“Christenson’s full-hearted dedication to the education of his students truly made him the heart and soul of the nuclear engineering program,” says Frank Gerner, CEAS senior associate dean of administration and finance, and former department head of nuclear engineering.

Megan Lobaugh, a former student of Christenson, remembers his involvement as the faculty advisor for UC’s student chapter of the American Nuclear Society. She reflects, “He was unquestionably instrumental in our involvement with the national society. He helped organize trips to ANS student meetings, tours of facilities and networking opportunities in order for his students to learn about and advance their careers in the nuclear field.”

In remembrance of their professor’s dedication toward their education, several of Christenson’s students commissioned a memorial bench outside of Old Chem building in his honor. 

Nuclear engineering students dedicated the memorial bench in front of Old Chem building in honor of John Christenson

Lobaugh articulates its significance, “This, to me, attests to his influence, support, and the special place he has in the nuclear engineering students’ memories of UC. Dr. Christenson was a champion for his students and the nuclear engineering program.” Lobaugh, PhD, currently works as a professional officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Christenson’s wife, Dot, was pleasantly surprised by this memorial gift on behalf of her husband’s commitment to the nuclear engineering program: “He would have been tremendously pleased by his students’ thoughtfulness.”

Reveling the Tradition of Giving Back

Dot has always actively supported social justice causes and continues her passion for giving back. CEAS recently spoke with her after publication of her first book, Keep on Fighting: The Life and Civil Rights Legacy of Marian A. Spencer. The book chronicles the life of her close friend and civil rights pioneer, Marion Spencer. Dot earned her Masters of Public Administration (MPA) from McMicken College of Arts and Sciences in 1974. She received her BA in economics from the University of Washington, where her husband John received his BS in electrical engineering and MS in nuclear engineering. John earned his PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Dot Christenson (left), Leslie Edwards (center), Tuskegee Airman, Marion Spencer (right) at the UC AARC "Keep on Fighting" book signing

Dot Christenson (left), Leslie Edwards (center), Tuskegee Airman, Marion Spencer (right) at the UC AARC "Keep on Fighting" book signing

“Keep on Fighting” tells the compelling story on the Spencer family’s fight for basic civil rights and justice in Cincinnati from 1935 to the present. Every Tuesday morning for five months in 2012, Marion shared her life and family history with Dot—including her grandfather’s background as a freed but educated slave, the family experience during Reconstruction and how Marian's grandfather and uncles managed to integrate the Gallipolis Academy High School in the early 1920's. UC’s African-American Cultural and Resource Center hosted a luncheon and book signing for Mrs. Spencer and Dot on October 22, 2015.

The College of Engineering and Applied Science proudly honors the notable contributions of John Christenson's noble dedication to nuclear engineering education, as well as Dot’s contributions to bettering the Greater Cincinnati community.