Auburn Engineering alumnus, interim president of Texas A&M, tells his Auburn story

By Lauren Winton

Published: May 26, 2021 11:00:00 AM

John Junkins John Junkins

John Junkins, ’65 aerospace engineering, was a first generation college student and the first with a doctorate degree. A successful engineer who has worked in both the private sector and academia, he likes to say that he’s not the most successful Junkins sibling in his family. His sister, Faye Gibbons, is an internationally renowned writer, having been inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame. And while her success is indeed noteworthy, Junkins’ engineering accomplishments are equally notable.

“My father was a World War II veteran,” Junkins said. “He and my mother had sixth- and fourth-grade educations between the two of them.  However, both were bright and understood education was vital for their children to succeed. We were not a rich family, but we were blessed with strong core values and we were happy. My hardworking parents instilled those values in us, so in that sense we were rich.”

As a student, Junkins was tenacious, hard working. After watching Sputnik make history his freshman year in high school, Junkins knew he wanted to be an aerospace engineer. His path to get there presented a few challenges. He grew up in Dalton, Georgia, attending a rural high school focused more on athletics than academics. Junkins describes himself as an overachiever – he was on the football team and the track team. He did not, however, have access to many of the prerequisite classes that engineering colleges required.

“I wanted to play college ball, and I got to observe spring training at Tennessee my senior year. On a car ride home, I told my coach – Coach Clegg – that I was not going to play college ball. He told me, ‘son, that’s the most intelligent thing I’ve heard you say. It’s clear to me that God’s plan has nothing to do with your physical abilities, it has to do with your mind.”’

Junkins’ decision not to play college football led him to Berry College, where he was able to make up for the classes he could not take in high school. He completed trigonometry, calculus, physics and his other requirements, while also participating in the track and field team, winning the GIAC championship in the pole vault.

“It was my intention, then, to go to Georgia Tech. I had always wanted to go to Georgia Tech, and I went to Berry to make up for my high school course deficiencies,” Junkins said.

For the fall of 1962, Junkins reapplied to Georgia Tech. He was accepted.

“My roommate at Berry College, who also did track and field, said he was going to Auburn University. I decided to ride down with him to Auburn,” Junkins said.

He fell in love with Auburn immediately.

“I saw Auburn, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist — and I am one — to notice the differences between Auburn and Georgia Tech. Where there was concrete and all boys at Georgia Tech, there were trees and pretty girls at Auburn,” Junkins said.

While he was on campus, he impulsively looked up the name of the registrar in the phone book and gave him a call. It was a Sunday afternoon, but amazingly, the registrar welcomed Junkins into his home.

“I told him how much I wanted to go to Auburn, and I applied in person right there on the spot,” Junkins said.

The registrar told him, “if your transcript and references are in order, you are accepted.” He started in the aerospace engineering program in September of 1962.

While at Auburn, Junkins made the decision to co-op as a student. That decision proved to be one of the wisest of his career; he wound up working with Wernher von Braun on the Apollo program, starting at age 19.

“Aerospace engineering appealed to me on a gut level. Listening to Kennedy’s speech and ultimately, seeing men land on the moon was just incredible,” Junkins said. “My early co-op experience confirmed for me that I was living my dream and I have been surfing on a wave of enthusiasm ever since.”

While Junkins was in Huntsville, he met his wife-to-be, Elouise.  The two were engaged in his junior year. They were married one week after he graduated in 1965.

After graduation, Junkins briefly worked for NASA before joining McDonald Douglas, which subsequently merged with Boeing. He worked full time for four years launching many satellites, while doing his graduate studies.

“These four years, time-sharing UCLA and my work at McDonnell Douglas, and starting our family with the birth of our son Stephen, was well beyond busy,” Junkins said. “Only through the incredible support provided by Elouise and a determined effort on my part was I able to do this.”

At 26, Junkins graduated with his doctorate degree in aerospace engineering from UCLA, and then went to the University of Virginia to work as an assistant professor. At 34, he moved to Virginia Tech with the rank of full professor.

In 1985, Junkins accepted an offer from Texas A&M, where he was the first to hold an endowed professor position at their College of Engineering.

“I came to Texas A&M because Herbert Richardson, the dean at the time, was a friend who had just arrived at Texas A&M from MIT. I became the 13th member of a small, unranked department,” Junkins said. “Today, our program is in the top 10 and rising quickly. We have 45 faculty and we have the national record with eight faculty who are members of the National Academy of Engineering.  My department, under the leadership of my colleague Rodney Bowersox, just won the lead role in a $100 million, five-year consortium for research in hypersonics.”

Although he is now the interim president of Texas A&M, Junkins said he wants his main legacy to be the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, an innovative program Junkins established and oversees.

“It is a revolutionary concept,” Junkins said. “When we launched the institute, we had virtually no staff or funding. Several faculty, including myself, made estate gifts of our life savings to start it. Chancellor John Sharp contributed $5 million to help launch the institute, and then we received generous endowments from many others including the generous $20 million from Jon Hagler to endow and name the institute.”

Across the university, faculty members can identify and nominate a highly accomplished candidate for the fellowship program. These fellows come from around the world, and are internationally renowned in their fields.  A rigorous evaluation process results in about 10 fellowships per year being awarded. The fellows take up residency at Texas A&M as Hagler Fellows for up to 12 months, and participate with the faculty and students on innovative projects that advance their fields.

“We’ve had more than 80 Fellows over the first nine years.  Three are Nobel Prize winners and over 60 are members of the national academies of science, engineering or medicine.  Eight have joined our regular faculty and have made transformative impacts,” Junkins said.  “When we began this program nine years ago, the university had 15 members of the national academies on our faculty. Today we have 45. The Hagler Institute for Advanced Study has been just an incredibly positive catalyst that is rapidly advancing many programs across the University.” 

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp agrees.

“John Junkins is famous for his remarkable accomplishments as an engineering professor, embodied in seven books, 400 papers, many successful space missions, and 55 PhD graduates. However his accomplishments in building and leading the Hagler Institute are even more amazing.”

Junkins credits his work with the Hagler Institute to Sharp’s decision to tap him as interim president.

“Chancellor Sharp called me because he knew I’d worked effectively with faculty and administration through the Hagler Institute and he believed that I could be a satisfactory interim president.  He told me, ‘I know this is a big step up as regards administrative responsibility, but I have faith in you.  What the heck, you’re a rocket scientist, you’ll figure it out!’”

From his beginnings as an Auburn Tiger, the now-Aggie credits his success to his Auburn Engineering foundation.
Media Contact: Lauren Winton, lmw0090@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519

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