A Tribute to Dr. John Conkling ’65
By Chris Mocella '01
Dr. John Alexander Conkling, Washington College Class of 1965 and lifelong WC chemistry professor and benefactor, passed away on December 18, 2021 surrounded by his loving family.
Throughout his life, Dr. Conkling exemplified the character of a true Philosopher King: generous with his life to friends and community, compassionate with his devotion to family, welcoming and thoughtful to everyone he met, and truly sage and honored in his scholarship of chemistry and pyrotechnics.
John was a proud native of Baltimore, coming to Washington College to complete his studies of chemistry in 1965 under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph McLain ’37 (WC chemistry professor and WC president 1973-1981). Forming an immediate bond with Dr. McLain, they worked together for John’s Senior Research which culminated in him being accepted into The Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. program. During his time at Washington College, John also joined the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and met (and later married!) his sweetheart, Sandra “Sandy” Murray ’65.
After attaining his Ph.D. in 1969, Dr. McLain drew the-now Dr. John Conkling back to WC as a chemistry professor as well as collaborator in the study of pyrotechnics that had been Dr. McLain’s lifelong research. It was here that Dr. Conkling grew into the consummate Scholar-Mentor, simultaneously working on his own craft in energetic materials while guiding his students in the philosophies of science and research.
During their early days in Chestertown, John and Sandy raised two children: John Jr. and Melinda. And, much later, they spent many loving years with their children and grandchildren (Max, Edward, Julia, and John III), splitting days between the Chester River and Texas where their children now live.
Dr. Conkling became a pioneer in the study and safety of pyrotechnics and fireworks, traveling the world to advise the fireworks industry, the United States, and international governments. In 1985, Dr. Conkling concluded his tenured position at WC to focus full time on his craft as Executive Director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. True to his humble and generous character, he continued to teach chemistry and advise undergraduate research studies as Adjunct Professor without taking a salary.
Outside of the chemistry department, Dr. Conkling was an enthusiastic member of the faculty softball team and advisor to his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. The Conklings greatly enjoyed cheering on WC basketball and lacrosse teams. He served on WC’s Board of Governors for six years, and was recognized with the college’s Alumni Service Award in 2013.
To salute our alma mater and with his deep collaborations in the industry, Dr. Conkling organized regular fireworks shows at the college for Convocation and Graduation. The fireworks that students see even today are the tribute and legacy of Dr. Conkling.
At that point in the 1980s, many fireworks and pyrotechnics texts had been written on the production and utility of energetic materials, but no manuscript existed on the chemistry of these reactions. Dr. Conkling, in 1985, published the very first Chemistry of Pyrotechnics: Basic Principles and Theory (Marcel Dekker, New York), which to this day is the seminal textbook on the physical-chemical aspects of energetic materials (with the 3rd Edition of the book being published in 2019 in collaboration with one of his chemistry alumni). Along the way, Dr. Conkling developed and presented his Summer Pyrotechnic Seminar series at WC for an incredible 26 years, bringing countless professionals to WC to learn directly about the chemistry of energetic materials.
After many years of traveling, advising, teaching, and collaborating, Dr. Conkling took his well-deserved retirement in 2013 to spend time with his wife Sandy, his children, and his grandchildren, which continued for the rest of his life.
Dr. Conkling is remembered for his immeasurable contributions to Washington College, for the care and time he took with his students and colleagues, and his unending devotion to family. When fireworks next rise over Washington College, it is the light of Dr. John Conkling ‘65 that is illuminating the night sky.