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March 24, 2011 Volume 32, No. 25

Good chemistry: Water specialist forms tight bonds at MU


READY TO HELP Bob Johns keeps the university's water supply safe as MU Energy Management's water chemical specialist. When he's not on the job, Johns is volunteering in the community, teaching English to international students or helping low-income families prepare their taxes. "If anybody needs help," he says, "well, I just go help." Shane Epping photo


For Johns, volunteering is part of life’s mix

Bob Johns has always made the most of a challenge. During the Vietnam War, when his parents advised Johns to enlist, he became a medic and was trained by the Army’s top health-care professionals.

During undergraduate enrollment at the University of Missouri-Rolla, when a professor recommended science courses, Johns signed up as a chemistry major, graduated with a life-sciences degree and eventually earned top-level water operator and distributor certification.

Now, as MU Energy Management’s only water chemical specialist, a call about a water leak or a water-quality issue sends Johns into trouble-shooting mode.

“I love working here,” says Johns, an MU Power Plant staff member for 25 years. “I’m always around a phone, and if I get a call I can be here in a second.”

The same infectious excitement fuels Johns’ volunteer work. He has given his time to Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and the Ronald McDonald House. He helps MU’s international community with English by leading conversation groups in an International Friends program, learning Mandarin and Russian for good measure.

When MU and the Internal Revenue Service offered tax-preparation training for volunteers, Johns took the course. He now spends tax season up to his elbows in paperwork as the most in-demand volunteer for two programs on campus.

“He’s a man of great intellect, and he uses it for the betterment of other people,” says Judy Todd, MU’s nonresident alien taxation specialist. “He embodies what Mizzou embraces. It isn’t just a job; it’s a community.”

Johns shrugs off his generosity, saying the undertakings are “fun” or “interesting.”

“If anybody needs help,” he says, “well, I just go help.”

Johns’ job provides frequent chances for him to expand his knowledge and his network. Every month he takes water samples from 40 locations across campus for testing. He checks MU’s five wells and inspects the power plant’s boilers and cooling towers daily.

“If something goes wrong here,” he says, “I take it personal.”

His diligence has paid off: MU hasn’t had a reportable water violation in more than two decades.

Because the campus houses major hospitals and research facilities, including a nuclear research reactor,  MU’s water has to meet standards set by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The newest regulations require a chemical monitoring system that eliminates 99.99 percent of the possibility of contamination by viruses or bacteria. MU enforces even higher standards.

Johns once performed most aspects of his job by hand. Now, the power plant’s water-monitoring system connects fiber-optically to campus water supplies. Chemical levels, flow rates, reservoir levels, pump pressure are all monitored by computers, automatically updating the numbers every six minutes and signaling alarms if variances occur.

But that doesn’t eliminate the need for Johns’ expertise, notes Don Harter, operations supervisor at the MU Power Plant.

“Even though we’ve automated a lot of the chemistry, you still have to understand the water-treatment process,” Harter says. “Bob is a real professional. You get him in a meeting and people start bringing up what the issues are, and soon his gears are rolling, thinking on a level that other people aren’t.”

Johns’ water knowledge and intellectual curiosity benefit MU operations outside the plant as well. When University Hospital had problems with spotting on sterilized equipment, for example, Johns helped identify the cause — it was the equipment, not the water. When a renovated wellhouse had chlorine evaporation problems, Johns used his chemistry training to figure out that the building temperature, set to 50 degrees to save on heating costs, was too low for the chlorine to volatilize.

“I guess I do things right,” Johns says, “because everybody invites me back.”

With tax season now under way, Johns’ wife, Joyce, a nurse at the Keene Family Medicine Clinic, won’t see as much of him. He’s helping international scholars and visitors with their taxes, and working with MU’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a service MU extension offers to help low-income families with tax preparation.

Johns says he enjoys meeting people from all over the world, walking them through complicated regulations and helping them secure a good outcome.

“The whole process is intimidating to start with, so I try to put them at ease,” Johns says. “Sometimes it’s intense, but it’s fun.”

— Karen Pojmann

Reprinted with permission of Mizzou Wire