John R. Whitaker
Sept. 13, 1929 – Sept. 28, 2013
John R. Whitaker, 84, of Davis, passed away on Sept. 28, 2013, at St. John’s Retirement Village in Woodland, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
He was born in Lubbock, Texas, the first of six children born to Ovid and Vera Whitaker. The family moved to Alabama in the early 1930s, where he helped on the family farm. He recalled picking 100 of cotton in one day when he was just 5 years old.
John graduated from Kate Duncan Smith DAR School in Grant, Ala., in 1947 and received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Berea College in Berea, Ky., in 1951. He attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, completing his Ph.D. in agricultural biochemistry in 1954. While attending The Ohio State University, he met his future wife, Gwendolyn Nadine Crow, on a blind date. After a speedy courtship, they were married on June 8, 1952, in Wooster, Ohio. Upon graduation, John went through basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., with the 101st Airborne Division, and then worked at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Md., for 22 months.
Interviewed and then hired by Emil Mrak, John moved his young family to Davis in 1956, where he accepted the position of instructor and junior food technologist at UC Davis. Promoted to professor and biochemist in the department of food science and technology in 1967, John also served as associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (1975-1983), chair of the department of biochemistry and biophysics (1984-1985), associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (1986-1990) and became an emeritus professor in 1993.
After retirement, John continued teaching and conducting research at numerous foreign universities until 2006. During his 50-year tenure with UC Davis, 128 graduate students and visiting scientists conducted research in his laboratory.
John’s major research emphasis was on food-related enzymes and their changes during processing and storage. He published more than 270 articles on the purification, structure and function of food enzymes, enzyme inhibitors and on other proteins, with 63 being published after retirement. John was the editor or co-editor of 12 books, the most recent being “Handbook of Food Enzymology.” Additionally, he was the editor of the Journal of Food Biochemistry for 19 years. John was an inspiration to his students and also to his family. His philosophy was “Do the best you can and make a difference; serve your fellow human beings; be humble, giving credit whenever it is due.”
In addition to John’s on-campus responsibilities, he began teaching and training researchers internationally in 1968, when he was invited to teach as a visiting professor of chemistry at the National University of Mexico. Numerous other visiting professor and teaching opportunities took him to Mexico, Brazil, Norway, Pakistan, India, England, China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. In 1980, he wrote the first official agreement of cooperation between UC Davis and foreign universities. He also held several leadership positions with the UC MEXUS program, which facilitates academic exchanges and collaboration between the University of California and Mexico. Over the years, he and his family frequently opened their Davis home to international students, helping them acclimate to life in the United States.
Some of the many awards that John received during his career include being named a Fellow of both the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, he was elected to the Mexican Academy of Sciences. He received The Ohio State University Centennial Achievement Award, and at the campus level, he received the William V. Cruess Award for Excellence in Teaching, had a student residence hall at La Rue named in his honor for his contributions to the undergraduate educational experiences of students at UC Davis, and was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award by the Academic Senate. In summing up John’s efforts, one colleague wrote, “He has helped strengthen science around the world, and in the process, he has brought great recognition and prestige to UC Davis.”
Away from the university, John was an avid gardener and enjoyed traveling with his family to numerous places, including: Evanston, Ill.; Norway; England; Brazil; and Mexico, all while on sabbatical leave from UC Davis. He was passionate about football — especially the Ohio State Buckeyes and The University of Alabama Crimson Tide. John and Gwen felt fortunate to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Maui with all of their daughters, sons-in-laws and grandchildren in 2002. And in 2012, they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary with the entire family and close friends at a local restaurant.
From a one-room schoolhouse in rural Alabama, where he was one of two students in his grade, to a professional career in university instruction and research that took John to more than 20 countries during his lifetime, it was quite a remarkable journey.
John was preceded in death by his parents, Ovid and Vera Whitaker; brothers (Harold) Glendon and Kenneth; and sister, (Cecille) Ovida Campbell. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Gwen C. Whitaker; four daughters, Dianne Whitaker of San Mateo, Pamela (Steven) Crandall of Renton, Wash., Brenda (David) Domingues of Plymouth, Minn., and Judy Whitaker of Davis; and four grandchildren, Michael, Jeffrey and Allison Domingues, and Catherine Crandall. He is also survived by a sister, Eldora Roe of Birmingham, Ala., and a brother, Vernon of Grant, Ala.
There will be no memorial service. Donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association – Northern California and Northern Nevada Chapter, St. John’s – Manor West or Yolo Hospice in memory of John R. Whitaker.