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Ole Kleppa, chemist, 1920-2007

June 1, 2007

Ole Kleppa, who escaped the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II and later became a leading authority in the study of metals, ceramics and minerals at high temperatures, died Sunday, May 27, at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, following intestinal complications. He was 87.

“It is truly one of the most important contributors to physical chemistry in the post-war era that has now passed away,” said Stein Julsrud, Adjunct Professor of materials technology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Kleppa, a Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, was a student at the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim when Germany invaded Norway in 1940. As a student government leader in occupied Norway, he organized readings at which participants extolled freedom and Norwegian nationalism and took part in other resistance activities.

“But then it was getting a little bit too dicey, so there was a group of five or six who decided that they needed to get out of Norway,” said Kleppa’s daughter, Abbie Lee Kleppa. Equipping themselves with buckets and backpacks to disguise themselves as berry-pickers, “they escaped over the mountains to Sweden” more than 50 miles away, she said.

After the war, Kleppa learned from his aunt that he crossed the border on the very day that she had received a letter from the Gestapo seeking to question him. But he had also dodged other wartime hazards. After teaching physics and chemistry in Uppsala, Sweden, for a year, he risked encounters with German warships en route to England.

“A lot of the boats going from Sweden to England didn’t make it across the North Sea. A boat they were on had to turn back one time, and they had to wait for another opportunity. Eventually their group made it to Scotland by plane,” Abbie Lee Kleppa said.

Kleppa served in a Norwegian military unit while in Britain. His assignments included eight months in Iceland in 1943, where he helped train U.S. soldiers to work in cold weather environments. In Iceland Kleppa also befriended Kristjan Eldjarn, who later became the nation’s president.

As a scientist at Chicago, Kleppa developed instruments capable of making difficult scientific measurements. He is especially known for the Kleppa calorimeter, an instrument that measures tiny amounts of heat as new materials form at high temperatures, said Susan Meschel, a Research Scientist and longtime collaborator at the University of Chicago’s James Franck Institute.

Kleppa’s calorimeters determined how much energy is required for a particular compound, alloy or mineral to form. It was not the type of research that grabbed newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, his experimental results were much sought after by scientists and engineers working on marketplace applications and by theoreticians pursuing basic research that is driven purely by curiosity.

“Even now, I get requests: have you measured this? Please send me the data,” Meschel said.

Compounds and alloys that Kleppa studied have become widely used in the aviation industry and by physicists developing superconducting materials for advanced technological applications. One compound that Kleppa and Meschel studied, neodymium boride, will serve as a key alloy in a new “super battery.”

Materials developed in Kleppa’s laboratory, and the chemical reactions he documented for a particular compound, have also found use in the nuclear reactor industry. Nuclear engineers are especially interested in controlling the formation of unwanted byproducts to increase the efficiency of nuclear reactors. “If they know the amount of energy that is required to make those byproducts, then they can change the conditions so that only some will form, or maybe none,” Meschel explained.

Kleppa shined as a mentor to his students as well as a scientist, said Alexandra Navrotsky, the Distinguished Professor of Ceramic, Earth and Environmental Materials Chemistry at the University of California, Davis. A former student of Kleppa’s, Navrotsky received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1967.

“He treated his students like family,” said Navrotsky, who also directs the Peter A. Rock Thermochemistry Laboratory and the Organized Research Unit on Nanomaterials in the Environment, Agriculture and Technology at UC Davis.

Another student who received her Ph.D. under Kleppa’s mentorship was Reatha Clark King, the former president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis, and former executive director of the General Mills Foundation.

Meschel changed research specialties in order to work in Kleppa’s laboratory after receiving her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1961.

“He was a wonderful supervisor, teacher and friend, and I respected him greatly,” Meschel said. “He always stood up for the underdog,” she said, whether it was for a faculty colleague or a student who had run into troubles that they sometimes had brought upon themselves.

A naturalized U.S. citizen, Kleppa played host to dozens of young foreign scientists over the years. Most were French, Japanese and Scandinavian, those with the most interest in his field. But Abbie Lee Kleppa also remembers Koreans, Greeks, Africans, Brits, Poles and Germans. “With the help of my mom, who is a very outgoing, genuine person herself, they ran what seemed like an international cultural center,” she said.

Ole Kleppa maintained a youthful lifestyle and enjoyed generally good health until the day he died. “He was very active in retirement,” Navrotsky said. “I remember attending a conference in New Hampshire about five years ago with him and we went hiking together.”

Also an avid skier, Kleppa plied the sport regularly with a group that called itself “the over the hill gang” until just a few years ago.

Kleppa was born Feb. 4, 1920, In Oslo, Norway. He received his Master of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1956 from the Norwegian Technical University in Trondheim. He married Abbie Joy Stodder on June 26, 1948. Former residents of the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and Valparaiso, Ind., they moved to Lubbock last October.

The author of more than 350 scientific publications, Kleppa began working at the University of Chicago in 1947 as a research fellow and instructor in the Institute for the Study of Metals, know called the James Franck Institute. He rose through the professorial ranks, attaining full professorship in 1962. Kleppa also served as Director of the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago from 1971 to 1977. He spent his entire career at Chicago, except for three stints abroad. He held visiting professorships at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in 1975 and at the University of Paris, Orsay, in 1977. He also was a visiting U.S. Senior Scientist in Marburg, Germany, in 1983-84 under the sponsorship of the Alexander von Humbolt Foundation. He retired as a Professor Emeritus in 1990.

Kleppa’s honors include the Huffman Memorial Award of the Calorimetry Conference, and the Hume Rothery Award of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. In 2000, his colleagues held a symposium in honor of his 80th birthday at the annual Minerals, Metals and Materials Society meeting in Nashville. He also was a member of the Royal Norwegian Society for Science and Letters, of the Norwegian Academy for Technological Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Society of Metals.

Kleppa is survived by his wife, Abbie Joy Kleppa, Lubbock, Texas; two daughters, Abbie Lee Kleppa, Lubbock, and Karen Joy Kleppa, Gol Norway; three grandchildren, Karl Jakob Haraldsson, Eirik Svavar Haraldsson, and Eva Kristin Haraldsdottir, Lubbock; and a sister, Ingeborg Lindahl, Oslo.

Grandson Karl Haraldsson will open a new chapter for the family at the University of Chicago this autumn, when he will enroll as a first-year student. Haraldsson is the son of Haraldur Karlsson, who received his Ph.D. in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago in 1988, and Abbie Lee Kleppa, a 1977 graduate of the University’s Laboratory Schools.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 16, at Neil Chapel at the Carillon, 1717 Norfolk in Lubbock.

“Scientist Ole Kleppa dies at 87”

June 5, 2007

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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