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Good chemistry

Water chemical specialist Bob Johns forms tight bonds at Mizzou

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Video by Shane Epping
  • Published: March 11, 2011

Bob Johns, the water chemical specialist at the MU Power Plant, is known for his big heart and his abundant intellectual curiosity. When not on the job ensuring the quality of Mizzou's water supply, he volunteers with organizations on and off campus.

Be careful what you suggest to Bob Johns.

If you mention a way he might learn something new or help someone out, he’s compelled to take it, run with it and — more often than not — master it.

Johns, an MU Power Plant staff member for the last 25 years, always has made the most of a challenge. During the Vietnam War, when his parents advised the then-teenager to choose military enlistment over the draft, Johns signed up, secured a position as a medic and eventually was trained by the Army’s top health-care professionals to treat fellow soldiers. 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, when he’s working as MU Energy Management’s only water chemical specialist, a call about a water leak or a water-quality issue at any time of day sends Johns into trouble-shooting mode.

“I love working here,” Johns says. “I’m always around a phone, and if I get a call I can be here in a second.”

Helping out

The same combination of pragmatism and infectious excitement fuels Johns’ ample volunteer work. Local nonprofit agencies need help, so Johns has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and the Ronald McDonald House – and assumed leadership positions. MU’s international community needs English practice, so Johns leads conversation groups in an International Friends program — and has learned Mandarin and Russian for good measure. In 2002 MU and the IRS offered Webcast tax preparation training for volunteers, so Johns took the course — and 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.”

Understating his achievements, Johns says the undertakings are “fun” or “interesting.” He largely shrugs off his generosity.

“If anybody needs help, well, I just go help,” he explains. “People are very accepting when they’re looking for volunteers. They start you out small, and then you progress. I guess the progression is what I like. You learn stuff. You meet a lot of people.” 

Testing the waters

Johns’ job provides frequent chances for him to expand both his knowledge and his network as he monitors the quality and quantity of the university’s water supply. Every month Johns takes water samples from 40 locations throughout campus for testing required by the Department of Natural Resources. Every day he checks MU’s five wells, inspects the power plant’s boilers and cooling towers and, when in his office inside the power plant, keeps an eye on the water from his computer screen.

“Things have to be right 100 percent of the time — not 99 percent of the time,” says Johns. “If something goes wrong here, I take it personal.”

The approach pays off; MU hasn’t had a reportable water violation in more than two decades.

Since Johns joined the MU staff in 1985, water regulations have become more stringent, and the means of monitoring them have grown more sophisticated. 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 four-log inactivation checks — a chemical monitoring system that eliminates 99.99 percent of the possibility of contamination by viruses or bacteria. MU enforces even higher standards.

“Our water quality here is very good,” Johns says. “Almost every major element is scrutinized to the minute details.”

Water wisdom

Johns once performed most aspects of his job by hand, taking a dozen bacteriological samples every month, analyzing the drinking water at wells to figure out treatment equipment needs and conducting tests for gross quantities of contaminants. The power plant’s current water monitoring system connects fiberoptically to water supplies throughout campus and shows data — chemical levels, flow rates, reservoir levels, pump pressure — on desktop computers throughout the plant, automatically updating the numbers every six minutes and signaling alarms if variances occur.

But the improved technology doesn’t eliminate the need for expertise like Johns’, 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. He’s great to work with because he just knows so much. 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 walked perplexed employees through an evaluation process to identify the cause of the spots (the equipment, not the water) and fix it. When chlorine evaporation problems in a recently renovated wellhouse stumped staff members, Johns culled knowledge from his chemistry training to figure out what was wrong (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.”

The tax man cometh

With tax season now under way, Johns laments that his wife, Joyce, a nurse at the Keene Family Medicine Clinic, won’t see as much of him. She’s used to it; all members of the Johns family — including daughter Sara (a nursing student) and son Kyle (a banker and Mizzou graduate) — have been dedicated to volunteer work for years. They had to cut back recently while taking care of Johns’ father, but Johns says he’s now ready to get back in action.  He has resumed Thursday-evening get-togethers with the English Conversation Groups program at University Place.  

He’s also working with MU’s non-U.S. resident tax preparation, a service offered by MU Cashiers to help international scholars and visitors who earn income at MU, and with MU’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a service MU extension offers to help low-income Columbia-area families with tax preparation. Through the two programs he deals with as many as 2,500 tax returns every year — and also has gone with MU employees to Rolla, where three volunteers once prepared 150 tax returns in one day.

“Bob is just kind of like tax superman,” says Todd.

Johns says he likes the work. He enjoys meeting people from all over the world, walking them through the complicated government regulations, navigating personal issues 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.”

Read more in:  Family & CommunityAgriculture & the EnvironmentSpecial Features & SeriesHealth & MedicineOn CampusScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012