College of Engineering News

He made history at UD and beyond

Costel D. Denson, a former professor, interim dean of the College of Engineering and later vice provost for research at the University of Delaware, passed away Monday, April 23, 2018, at the age of 83.

“Cos Denson was a pioneer, a scholar, a leader, a mentor and a friend to many during the nearly three decades that he worked at UD,” said Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of UD’s College of Engineering. “The College of Engineering benefited greatly from his willingness to step up and serve as interim dean, and those of us who were privileged to know him are sad to hear of his passing.”

Dr. Denson was born June 14, 1934, in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, to Costel and Virginia Denson.

He was the first African American student to be admitted to Lehigh University, graduating in 1956 with a degree in chemical engineering.

In 1956, Dr. Denson joined the U.S. Army Reserves, rose to the rank of captain and proudly served until 1968, when he was honorably discharge.

Following his graduation from Lehigh, Dr. Denson worked as a chemical engineer for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, for several years, before he obtained his master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1960. In 1965, he received his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the University of Utah. Dr. Denson then resumed his career with General Electric. In 1968, he was invited to return to Lehigh as a visiting professor for a year. The following year, upon returning to General Electric, he was promoted to manager of GE’s Polymer Research division at Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky.

In September 1977, Dr. Denson, renowned for his expertise in polymer engineering and fluid mechanics, joined UD’s faculty in chemical engineering. He was recruited to UD from industry by Arthur Metzner, then the chair of the chemical engineering department. Dr. Denson was the first African American faculty member in UD’s chemical engineering department.

In 1982, Metzner recruited Prasad Dhurjati, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, mathematical sciences and biological sciences, who became Dr. Denson’s friend.

“We had a small department of a dozen or so closely-knit faculty at that time,” said Dhurjati. “My faculty office was near that of Cos Denson, and I got to develop a very good friendship with him over a couple of decades.  He loved Indian food and even after his retirement, we used to meet once a month for lunch at an Indian restaurant.”

At UD, Dr. Denson met his future wife, Carol, who had also recently joined the faculty in consumer studies. They married in 1982.

Dr. Denson served as interim dean of engineering at UD from 1991 to 1992 after R. Byron Pipes, previous dean of engineering, became UD’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.

In announcing Dr. Denson’s appointment, a 1991 article in UD’s Messenger publication noted: “Since joining the faculty of the College of Engineering, Denson has been responsible for establishing and supervising graduate research programs in polymer processing and developing and teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

As interim dean, Dr. Denson was instrumental in the formulation of a strategic plan to offer students more opportunities to study energy, the environment, and manufacturing — focus areas that the College of Engineering is known for today.

Dr. Denson later worked as UD’s vice provost for research from 1994 to 2000, and then he returned to his faculty position until his retirement from the University in 2005.

After making history as Lehigh University’s first African American undergraduate student, Dr. Denson “broke down barriers at UD and created more ‘firsts’ as vice provost for research and as interim dean of the College of Engineering,” said Dhurjati.

“At Delaware, he continued to fight for the rights of the underprivileged,” said Dhurjati. “I treasure the fact that he always reached out to me as someone who understood and empathized with the causes that he was fighting for. I was privileged to have the opportunity to understand the civil rights movement and the history of the early struggles in America through the eyes of a person who had actually lived through these challenging times. I remember him for his positive and forgiving attitude and for his sense of humor and humanity.”

Michael Vaughan, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Engineering, said Dr. Denson was one of his first and lasting mentors at UD. Dr. Denson hired Vaughan in 1992 after a national search.

“In many ways, Cos is the major reason that I decided to join UD,” said Vaughan. “I can remember our hiring negotiations vividly where he provided many compelling reasons why I should join the UD engineering team. First among these was that I would have an opportunity to make a real difference and contribute at a high level to the college’s success. His encouragement, faith in my abilities and willingness to serve as a mentor gave me the resolve and confidence to take on this new role and move my young family from North Carolina. I have developed many good relationships at UD since my arrival but none more notable and important to me as the friendship that Cos and I built over the years.”

Vaughan added: “I was shaken noticeably when I heard of Cos’ passing but I found great comfort in the fact that Cos lived a long, rich, blessed and consequential life … full of love with his dear wife, Carol, family and friends! Who could ask for more than this? I will miss my friend but a wonderful part of him will remain with me, always.”

Dr. Denson was an active member of a number of professional societies, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Society of Rheology and the Society of Plastics Engineers. The Extrusion Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In 2005, he launched Costech Technologies, LLC, which advised on environmental research programs. In 2009, Dr. Denson was appointed as a scientific adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Denson is survived by his wife, Carol; brother, Fred, of Rochester, New York; son, Eric of Seattle, and daughter, Deidra of Vienna, Virginia, from his first marriage; and stepsons Carl Reiter and Andrew Smith from his second marriage.