During a teaching career that has
spanned more than 40 years, John Wettaw has made a profound impact on both his
students and the university.
Wettaw’s former students frequently cite
his positive influence on their lives and careers. Having taught more than
15,000 students throughout his career, Wettaw has touched the lives of
countless others through his impact. For Wettaw, his work is not about numbers -- it is about connecting with students, and serving as an accessible mentor to
those who come through his chemistry classroom.
“I like to get to know students, and I
like them to get to know me,” Wettaw says. “They have to get to know you as a
human being – that you can laugh, and that you can be tough. Everybody wants to
treat people as they would want to be treated.”
Since he began teaching in 1967, Wettaw has had plenty of opportunities to serve as a mentor to students. During most of that same period, he served a similar purpose in a different role – as an Arizona state legislator. Wettaw, who holds the record as the longest-serving Republican state legislator in Arizona history, served 20 years in the Arizona House of Representatives and eight more years in the senate before retiring in 2001. He says balancing the dual roles was easy.
“Teaching chemistry and being a politician are identical,” Wettaw explains. “You have a product, you market it, and you sell it. If I go into a classroom, I have to sell students on myself and on chemistry. If I go down to Phoenix, I have to sell other legislators on myself and on what my view is on a particular piece of legislation. There is absolutely no difference between the two.”
As a legislator, Wettaw established a reputation as someone who was not afraid to work on both sides of the political aisle to advocate for good policy. He helped push massive improvements to the state’s physical infrastructure, was a tireless advocate for education, and was largely responsible for securing the funding that helped build the university’s Walkup Skydome. However, Wettaw readily points out that nothing would have been accomplished without the help of many others.
“When you talk about accomplishments, you have to be careful about taking credit because everyone has to chip in together to get anything to happen,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I would often ask people in both parties if they wanted to sign on as a bill co-sponsor. I would say, ‘If you want to take credit for it, that’s fine: just don’t come north of the Mogollon Rim.’”
It was this approach, and his long years of service, that earned Wettaw the respect of his peers and led to his most visible honor: in 1999, the NAU Biology and Biochemistry building was officially named after him.
“I found out that the state didn’t have enough money to furnish the building,” Wettaw says. “So I went to see former Arizona Governor Jane Hull and ended up getting matching funds, which got the bill through the Senate and the House. Later, Representative Burkum – who succeeded me in the Senate for one term after I retired – told me, ‘We just named the new building for you.’ I had no idea it was planned.”
In 2014, Wettaw announced he would be retiring from the university after nearly 50 years of teaching chemistry. His legacy goes beyond just the building that carries his name, but extends to the students who he has interacted with for over four decades: an open door policy that has made him a beloved mentor and a friend.
“In the legislature, I couldn’t have done anything unless I had good mentors,” Wettaw says. “In my later years down there, I told young people coming in, ‘If you have a question about the process, or just want to chat, just ask me: I’ll be glad to talk to you.’ I take that same approach today.”