A Chemical Bond

Whether in teaching or marriage, research or service, retiring professor Larry Eng-Wilmot focuses on the connections.

As part of a Making Life Better trip, Chemistry Professor Larry Eng-Wilmot (right) installs a water filtration system at Bal Mandir primary school, in rural Western Nepal. (Photo by Laura J. Cole) As part of a Making Life Better trip, Chemistry Professor Larry Eng-Wilmot (right) installs a water filtration system at Bal Mandir primary school, in rural Western Nepal. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

Professor Larry Eng-Wilmot was not born with a hyphenated last name. Rather, some 40 years ago when he got married, before such things were fashionable, he and his wife, a kindergarten teacher, joined their names. This was not, as he explains it, any sort of political statement. (Though now, he says, it makes finding him on Google a lot simpler: “There are only like four of us in the world.”) Simply, his wife, a Chinese American named Eng, was the last of her family line, and they wanted to preserve her heritage. So Eng-Wilmot—or more commonly, “EW” and “Mrs. EW”—it was.

EW relates this story while sipping ice tea in the Park Avenue Starbucks, a place he does not often visit because he’s not fond of chains. He’s in jeans, sneakers, and a hat, and from a certain angle kind of looks not unlike the Monopoly Man, sans monocle and mustache.

After this year, his 33rd as a Rollins chemistry professor, he’ll be retiring because he’s turning 66 soon, and that’s what you do at that age, even if you have some mixed feelings about it. “I’m like one of the seven dwarves,” he says. “I come to work every morning with a smile on my face, whistling ‘hi-ho it’s off to work I go.’”

EW was in his second year of postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oklahoma back in 1980 when his research advisor pushed him out the door. “I think you’re ready to get out there,” the advisor told him. He began looking in the Southeast, where he’d grown up (his father was a music professor at the University of Florida). At Rollins, he recalls, “There was a good feel for what the institution was about—faculty and administration who cared for students and their development. There was a spirit of risk-taking and support.”

The College was, at the time, smaller than it is now. For professors, it was a more communal experience; they would gather from the different departments into colloquia in the faculty club on Fridays, where EW and others who were trained as research scientists would discuss a variety of issues, including learning theory and pedagogy. “Most of us weren’t trained as educators,” he says. “We were flying by the seat of our pants. By some small miracle we did get it right.”

That’s changed a little as the College has grown. But at the same time, he says, Rollins has become more student-centered. “The College has done a lot of things in a very deliberate, thoughtful way. It’s become a lot better in many ways.”

Over the past three decades, EW has amassed a considerable slate of honors and recognitions: In 2006 he received Rollins’ Cornell Distinguished Service Award; a year later he was named “Most Dedicated” on Professor Appreciation Day; in 2009, he was elected as a distinguished member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, just to name a few.

His body of research is similarly impressive. Since coming to Rollins in 1980, he’s published 12 articles in top-notch journals, and given 17 presentations at academic conferences and meetings, and received grants from the Research Corporation, National Science Foundation, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. EW’s research has largely focused on bioinorganic chemistry and coordination chemistry. Specifically, he’s delved into microbial iron transport compounds, the chemistry of natural water systems, molecular chemistry and stereochemistry, and studies of aluminum ion in Winter Park lakes, among others.

He’s not without regrets. Some of his research was difficult to accomplish at an undergraduate setting that didn’t have some of the more specialized instruments available at research universities, and he had limited time to actually do research with his students, so he got scooped on a couple projects. “There are things that just didn’t get finished because you ran out of the student or you ran out of time.”

But on the other hand, “The biggest thing for me with respect to research is to see how students are transformed by the research experience. For a number of students I’ve worked with, this experience has been the defining moment of their education as an undergrad. That’s a real satisfaction that I’ve had.”

He also derives satisfaction from the two student groups he advises: Rollins Relief and Making Lives Better. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, he made his first trip to New Orleans, and Rollins Relief was born. Volunteering was always important to him, and he’d long been involved with the Boy Scouts and Habitat for Humanity. But, somewhat selfishly, he says, he signed up for this trip because he wanted to see what disaster relief looked like. And he did. He and the group have been back 13 times since, most recently in January.

Making Lives Better, meanwhile, is another student-led service-philanthropy group that focuses on international educational and medical outreach in the developing world. He’s made two three-week trips to Nepal with groups of Rollins students, most recently with a trio of dental surgeons who performed hundreds of procedures in just a few days.

“Local service is something that’s really become important to me,” he says. “I hope it becomes a big part of my life in retirement.”

Neither that service nor that life will exist only in Central Florida. A few years back, he and his wife bought a cabin deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia. The nearest grocery store is a good half-hour drive away. “Having that place to go to,” he says, “has been the thing that has reenergized us.”

He’s worked 60 to 70 hours a week for 10 months a year these last three decades. As a stay-at-home mom and kindergarten teacher, his wife has been just as busy. Their cabin allows them to hike and bike and spend time together. In fact, he’s only about 100 miles shy of having hiked half of the entire Appalachian Trail.

“I have a vision of trying to start a Habitat group in that part of Appalachia,” he says.