The Chemistry of a Good Life
Posted by cservaes on March 12, 2013 in "Academic Programs", Alumni, "School of Arts and Sciences", "The College"
Check the label of the average household product under your sink or in your cabinet and you will observe that the solution is usually a mixture of two or more chemicals properly combined for accomplishing the product’s purpose. Whether hairsprays, degreasers, rug cleaners, or air fresheners, chemical combinations can be very useful and are generally harmless when stored and used under the appropriate conditions. But as many people can attest from their high school chemistry lab, the wrong combination of chemicals can also prove to be very dangerous. Even chemicals that serve wonderful purposes, such as ammonia and bleach, when put together can become extremely harmful, even lethal. You might say that the same is true of a person’s life – the right chemistry of parenting, values, education, career, friendships, and experiences can produce a useful and beautiful life, whereas the wrong mixture of those things, or improper handling of them, can produce quite the opposite result. Dr. H Robert “Bob” Froning ’43 understands both types of chemistry firsthand and is the product of a great life mixture. The grandson of German immigrants, Froning was born in 1921 to Henry August Froning and Edna Rose Melchert, who were married in Lorraine, Kansas, in 1917. The year before Froning’s birth, his father became superintendent, high school principal, coach, and teacher in Bushton, Kansas. Summers were spent living and farming on the Sullivan place west of Lorraine. “I have vivid memories of summer life on the farm,” says Froning. “My dad still farmed with horses, so I saw harvest before the mechanical age. All three of us children had chores, and [brother] Don and I played lots of hours in the dirt.” Impressions were added to the young Froning’s life mix from his father’s education role, as well. “The account that gives me the greatest pride in my dad was when his school board president and other members took him to a Ku Klux Klan meeting,” recounts Froning. “The speaker harangued the Catholics and asked anyone who did not agree with him to stand up. Dad … stood up. [He] was asked to leave the meeting, and he did.” Other formational memories of Froning’s Bushton years involved showing off the family’s new Whippet car with its chrome radiator; stealing chewing gum from the drug store and being marched back to pay; having snowball fights with his dad; nearly choking to death on four marshmallows that he snuck from the kitchen cupboard; and his father bringing an orphaned nephew, who had dropped out of high school, to live with them and complete school. In 1926,
Froning, Sr. left his superintendent job and purchased farmland adjacent to his parents. Full-time life on the farm came with no indoor plumbing, electricity or heat beyond a coal-burning stove, but it proudly boasted a new John Deere tractor and Massey-Harris combine. The children’s new school was three miles away in Victoria Township. With a large extended family, Froning’s life was filled with visits to and from aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents from down the road and across the Midwest. “Each had some impact on my life,” he says. In fact, varying moments in history were marked for Froning by many of those visits. “I associate seeing grandfather Froning sick and lying on a bed in his parlor with the first news of Lindberg’s flight across the ocean,” he recalls. “When having a fender-bender fixed during a trip to see Aunt Margaret in Chicago, a Herbert Hoover speech was being broadcast on the radio during the election when the Republicans got the black vote; when Hitler went into Poland, we were at the home of Cousin Leora during our trip to the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.” The onset of the Great Depression was felt right at home for the Fronings, however, when wheat prices dropped from $4 to 25 cents a bushel. The hard years were tempered in part by church and family activities, with many Sundays spent at Grandma Froning’s for lunch. Aunt Margaret also continued to provide elements to Froning’s development through gifts of Tennyson’s works, his first trip to the World’s Fair, tours of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and a set of golf clubs given one club at a time.
When Froning entered junior high, his parents sent him, sister Beth and Don to the Lyons school system for a better education, complete with their very own “school car.” All three children were part of 4H, and though he did not excel at it, Froning was voted “The Best Dressed Boy in Kansas” through the club and won a trip to the National Convention in Chicago, where his “beyond the classroom” education continued. In stark contrast to the joy that permeated most of his young 14 years, loss became part of the chemistry of Froning’s life in 1936 when his brother, Don, died of scarlet fever at the age of 16. “In some ways my youth was divided into the time before and after his passing,” says Froning. Losing his caring brother, playmate and roommate was a deep part of who he was to become. Another hardship shaped Froning’s future during his sophomore year at Lyons High School when problems with his eyes dashed his dreams of becoming a pilot. “I wanted to be a pilot from the time of Lindberg’s flight,” says Froning. But those dreams vanished when the doctor told me, ‘Son, you were born with cataracts which might develop at any time. You should not be a pilot.’” Though he didn’t know it at the time, a second event during his sophomore year would prove to have career implications for Froning in the next 10 years – the exciting discovery of oil on his Grandfather Melchert’s farm. Froning entered Ottawa University in the fall of 1939, along with fellow Lorraine church friend Ray Schmidt ’43. Two of his second cousins also attended OU at that time. His dad, a 1909 graduate, was on the Board of Trustees, his mother was a 1915 graduate, and his sister, Beth, joined him on campus in 1940. Froning’s years at OU were full of rich experiences involving fraternity life, his chemistry major, debate, and an attempt at playing both golf and tennis. He also developed lifelong friendships with a number of fellow students, including debate partner Roger Fredrikson (Click here to read about the important impact of that partnership on OU - "The Power of Persuasion."
“The singular most important happening in my time at Ottawa was in the fall of 1942,” says Froning. “Carol Larson ’45 transferred to The College. My roommate had a date with her, but he had to go out of town. I gladly took Carol. She was mine from then on!”
Following OU, Froning earned a master’s degree in chemistry (’44) and a PhD in Physical Chemistry (’49) from Indiana University. His education was interrupted in 1944, however, when he applied for direct commission in the Navy to aid in the WWII effort. He was sent to Naval Training School at Fort Schuyler in New York and then to antisubmarine training in Miami. Even from so far away, in Miami and later in route to Saipan, Ottawa University kept emerging to keep him connected to his Kansas roots. “There was a time that four of us, Navy and Army, from Ottawa University went to church together while in Miami,” remembers Froning. By January 1945, Froning received orders to report to the 12th Naval District in San Francisco, where he was assigned to a sub-chaser in the Pacific via Hawaii. From there he boarded a destroyer for transport to the Ulithi Atoll, and then flew to Guam before being transported to Saipan to board the USS SC668. On the flight to Guam, OU was with him once again. “I sat next to Ensign Shideler, the son of a Purdue professor who was one of my mother’s best friends at Ottawa University,” says Froning. “It was a small world.” In March, Froning and his crew put out to sea to convoy Liberty ships to Okinawa and be a part of the invasion force. Following Japanese shelling upon approach, the ship was directed to the south shore of the island to appear as a landing craft control vessel. They experienced an engine outage, however, and upon repair, the crew was sent to the western side of Okinawa, where their assignment for the rest of the war was to detect any Japanese submarines approaching the entrance to Nakagusuku-Wan (Buckner Bay). Even in the throws of WWII in an isolated bay on Okinawa, Ottawa University made another appearance. “My old college roommate, Earl Schlick, was an officer on the hospital ship Hope,” recounts Froning. “The Hope made several trips to Okinawa to pick up wounded. I spent a night on the Hope visiting Earl. Then later, Earl and I got together with Ray Schmidt, my first college roommate and hometown friend, on his supply ship, the Arcturus. What were the chances that three dry-land farm boys and college roommates would get together in a place like Okinawa?”
Froning was fortunate not to be involved in any major incidents during his time on the sub-chaser, but many experiences during his one-year stint made deep impressions on him, making the Navy and the sea an integral part of his life. Experiences such as the two typhoons that took out a number of ships and left Froning thankful for some “mistakes” that proved life saving for his crew. Experiences like navigation by the stars; searches among uncharted reefs at night for a downed pilot; commonplace, often cruel practical jokes; prevalent prejudice; and navigation of everyday life, from negotiating for rations or needed maintenance, to interactions between a captain and a crew that were “anything but regulation.” “I grew up and learned to meet tough situations using the skills and advice of people of widely different backgrounds,” says Froning. “[These people] were my support and teachers. It was not a typical Navy ship, but a laboratory of life.” With the announcement on August 14, 1945, that the war was over, the USS SC668 escorted some landing ship tanks back to Pearl Harbor before returning to San Francisco. The ship was finally decommissioned in March. Froning, who had been promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade, returned to Kansas, and he and Carol were married on March 30, 1946. They went on to have three children, Karen, Donald and Paul. Froning remained in the Navy, serving as commanding officer of a patrol craft submarine assigned to the antisubmarine officers’ training school in Key West, Florida. Carol joined him there until he was detached from command in July 1946. The couple then returned to Indiana, where Froning completed his doctorate degree. Following his education, Froning began a 37-year career in the oil industry with Amoco Production Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Serving in research and development and administration, he started out as a chemist, then a research associate and engineer, later moving to research group supervisor, and finally to research director of recovery methods. During his career with Amoco, Froning was involved in a number of high-profile projects for developing processes that were applied by the industry. His first laboratory research provided data for the design of a large plant, which converted natural gas to fuels and chemicals, a process the Germans used to fuel their war machine in WWII. His work then shifted to the removal of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from plant gases for heat and industrial purposes. This work continues today due to the concern about buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increased use of natural gas. Finally, Froning’s work moved to oil recovery methods, where he led the laboratory research effort to develop processes that would significantly enhance the percentage of oil recovered from any given reservoir. The most successful of the processes he helped develop was the injection of carbon dioxide, the method that accounted for two percent of all oil produced in the U.S. in 2011. His distinguished career with Amoco brought Froning a number of honors. He was recognized as a Pioneer in Enhanced Oil Recovery by the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the Department of Energy, and he holds 20 patents. He also served on committees of the National Research Council and led multi-company projects to develop chemical supplies for oil recovery. Interestingly, three other OU chemistry majors of Froning’s era became research directors for major companies in the 1960s, as well. “I’ve had an incredibly good life,” says Froning. “There is no way that I can adequately give thanks for the support, guidance and love of family and friends during the early years of my life. Looking back, I see that God has richly blessed me.”
Froning passed on the chemistry for a good life to his own family. The most important elements of his life are his and his late wife Carol’s seven grandchildren, all of whom are high achievers in a variety of careers and educational pursuits, including several in the energy industries and the sciences. He also helps current OU students through the support of the Froning Family Scholarship, which was initiated by his parents. The rest of us would be well served by following Froning’s recipe for a successful life, as well. Simply mix together playing in the dirt, strong friends, a loving family, hard work, a solid education, service to country and fellowman, some snowball fights, dignity in hardship, a prominent career, and exposure to an array of life experiences. You may or may not have to steal your roommate’s girlfriend as your future spouse.