Richard L. Wasson (BS, '53, chemistry) worked on fragrances and flavors for many years of his career at the Monsanto Company.
But Wasson had a way of adding a special flavor to just about anything he did, from playing trombone in the Marching Illini, mapping wildflowers at a St. Louis nature preserve, or helping with the annual Cubs-Cardinals game as part of his work for the LAS Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“My father was lively, just a bubbling-over kind of guy,” recalls Sue Bohm, the oldest of Wasson’s two daughters. “If he hadn’t seen you in awhile, or if he didn’t know you very well, he was always glad to see ya, glad to meet ya. He was a happy guy who just loved people. You were his friend immediately.”
His effervescent personality lent itself well to alumni work, and Wasson served the college as a member of the alumni board from 2001 to 2007; and even when he wasn’t on the board, he was in the thick of alumni events. This commitment has made him a clear choice for the 2013 LAS Quadrangle Award, given posthumously in honor of his loyalty and long-time service to the college.
Wasson grew up in Farmington, Illinois—the son of a coal miner who died in an accident when Richard was just 10 years old. He learned to be self-motivated in his schooling, while his mother carried a heavy load, working long hours at a bakery and then returning home in the early morning to feed the farmhands.
Wasson was valedictorian at Farmington Community High School and played center for the fabled undefeated 1946 football team, which outscored their opponents 295 to 19 and earned a place in the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame. He also loved music, playing trombone for the Farmington band; and when he came to the University of Illinois, he played all four years in the Marching Illini. He even had the honor of playing for the Marching Illini at the 1952 Rose Bowl, where Illinois trounced Stanford 40-7.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Illinois in 1953, Wasson went on to receive his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. “But although he got his PhD from MIT, his heart was always at Illinois,” Bohm says.
He began at the Monsanto Company in 1956, working on new processes for products such as aspirin and derivatives, as well as saccharin, vanillin, and caffeine. He also worked on new families of proprietary fragrances and flavor enhancers. In fact, Bohm says she will never forget when her father came to her junior high school and had her entire seventh-grade class march to the cafeteria where they taste-tested three flavors of grape Kool-Aid. At the time, Monsanto was developing a new formula for pre-sweetened Kool-Aid so people would no longer have to add four cups of sugar to the Kool-Aid and water mixture.
In addition, he worked on pharmaceutical products, food ingredients, heat transfer chemicals, and biotechnology/peptide product development. Several of the evaluation techniques he worked on even led to new fragrance and flavor enhancers and modifiers—synthetic chocolate flavors among them.
Wasson added spice to LAS events, particularly the annual Cubs-Cardinals game and the Illinois-Missouri Braggin’ Rights games in football and basketball. Wasson’s wife Neva is an alumnus of the University of Missouri, so the annual match-ups between the Illini and Mizzou made for some lively kitchen-table debates, although Bohm says her mom kept her Missouri background quiet while sharing the Illinois box with the rest of the LAS crowd.
Wasson retired in 1990 after 33 years with Monsanto, and for the next five years he maintained an active scientific consulting business, advising biotechnology start-up companies in new product development, laboratory safety, and environmental issues.
But his LAS alumni activities remained a highlight of each year, Bohm says. Whenever he returned to campus, he would play trombone in the Marching Illini alumni band. Back in St. Louis, where they lived, he regularly performed in the Ambassadors of Swing, a band that performed at the Casa Loma dance hall, and he even used his trombone as part of his therapy while battling lung cancer, Bohm says.
After his retirement, Richard and Neva Wasson did almost 10,000 hours of volunteer work at the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center near St. Louis, working at the main desk, conducting hikes for visitors, and mapping out wildflowers along the way—yet another activity that literally added fragrance to his life. He also was active as an ordained elder in his church—Southminster Presbyterian.
“I’m an old guy who has tried to maintain young, creative ideas,” he once said. “I may have lost a lot of my hair, good vision, hearing, and firm waistline, but I haven’t lost my sense of humor or my desire to help others of all ages.”
In early 2013, Wasson was honored for 60 years in the American Chemical Society, and Bohm says her father was determined to attend the ceremony, no matter what his health condition might be. Bohm is convinced the same would have held true for the LAS Quadrangle Award, had he not passed away in May.
“He would have had me drive him to campus and wheel him to the ceremony,” she says. “I am sure he would have made it here no matter what. He was one of a kind.”