Engineers and those working or studying at UC Davis know John Kemper as the second dean of the College of Engineering, a position he held from 1969 until his retirement in 1983. Kemper’s presence is felt to this day, not least by virtue of the College of Engineering hall named in his honor.

But Kemper is equally well known by an entirely different community — professional birders — thanks to his activities following retirement from UC Davis. He became quite active with the Yolo Audubon Society — serving as its president for a time — and embarked on a publishing career that began with the 1997 release of Discovering Yolo County Wildlife, a collection of nature columns he previously had submitted to newspapers and newsletters. He also drew all the black-and-white illustrations that appeared in the book.

That book was followed by Birding Northern California (1999), Southern Oregon’s Bird Life (2002), Exploring Southern Oregon’s Beautiful Places (2003), The Rogue Valley andWildflowers of Southern Oregon (both 2006).

“I grew up in Palo Alto, which was then a small town, loving birds and wildlife,” Kemper told a reporter in 1997. “I was an Eagle Scout, and I had to know a terrible total of 21 birds, which was very hard to do at that time. That piqued my interest, and I kept it up all my life.”

One wonders if any of Kemper’s birding readers also happened to pick up his earlier textbooks, Engineers and their Profession and Introduction to the Engineering Profession. Both remain in print, in updated editions.

Kemper’s path to UC Davis began with a stint at Lockheed Aircraft, followed by WWII service with the Army Air Corps. He subsequently worked as a design engineer for Telecomputing Corporation, as a chief mechanical engineer at the H.A. Wagner Company, and as vice president of engineering for the Marchant Division of SCM Corporation. He earned his B.S. degree in 1949, followed by a master’s degree  in 1959; he joined the UC Davis faculty in 1962 and earned his Ph.D. the same year he became dean of the College of Engineering.

Such professional credentials notwithstanding, Kemper is equally celebrated in birding circles; as of the publication of his second book, he had achieved a North American “life list” of 718 species spotted … including 275 in Yolo County.

“Northern California is a major destination for birders,” he noted, in 1999, “on a par with other acknowledged hot birding areas, such as Texas and Arizona.

“I hope that message comes out clearly in my books.”

DavisWiki: John D. Kemper

For more information on the College of Engineering’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, please email Oliver Ramsey.