Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • BEN H. CAUDLE (1923-2019)



    The person who became Professor Emeritus BEN HALL CAUDLE entered this world in Midlothian, Texas, on April 27, 1923, and departed in Austin on February 6, 2019, at the age of 95.

    Born to Allen and Mattie Caudle, both schoolteachers at the time, Ben was raised in Dallas, where he graduated from high school at age 16. Heeding his father’s advice, he attended a junior college before transferring to the University of Texas, where he received a BS in chemistry in 1943. He then took a job at the US Bureau of Mines in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, but was drafted soon after and served as an enlisted infantryman in the Third US Army, where he saw action in the Battle of the Bulge (and earned a battle star) and in the crossing of the Rhine River into Germany. His unit shipped out of Europe with the goal of participating in the invasion of Japan, but this was happily preempted by Japan’s surrender. He landed in New York City on V-J Day instead, and he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service.

    Upon discharge from the Army, he returned to the Bureau of Mines before returning to Dallas to be closer to his family. He went to the Atlantic Refining office in the Magnolia Building seeking a job and was hired on the spot as a research scientist, specializing in oil recovery and the measurement of relative permeability.

    During this time, he met the love of his life, Edna Lucille (“Teal”) Stewart. They were married in 1948 and blessed with two sons, Alan and Brian.

    Through the Atlantic Lecture Series, Ben gave several invited lectures at the Department of Petroleum Engineering (now Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, PGE) at the University of Texas. Shortly after this he returned as a PhD student under the supervision of Professor Hal Silberberg. Ben always said he came back because he wanted to learn more mathematics and apply this to his research in oil recovery. He completed his PhD in petroleum engineering in 1963 and promptly became department chair, a position he held for four years.

    For over 40 years, Ben pioneered research in improved oil recovery, including new technologies such as water-alternating-gas injection. He began his research career studying physical models, then electrical analogs, and finally made the jump to the computer age with numerical models, some of which are still used today. He authored numerous papers and two textbooks. He also wrote a section on oil and gas production for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    He was honored with numerous awards from professional societies and designated an honorary member of both the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the American Institute of Mining Engineers. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1988.

    There can be no doubt that his proudest achievement was the teaching of so many undergraduate and graduate students during his long academic career. After Ben’s official retirement in 1997 (after which he continued to teach classes for many years), his former students raised funds to create both the Caudle Excellence Fund and the Caudle Learning Center in the PGE Department in his honor.

    Following on the above professional summary of Ben’s career, I offer my personal reflections.

    In his notebook Mark Twain said that in giving a speech (he gave many, one of the few great men who was recognized in his lifetime) it is better to draw figures than to write notes. I will try that here.

    The first drawing (a stick figure) is of a prospective young faculty member being shown around by an older one. When I interviewed at UT Austin in 1978 and went into Ben’s office he said, “I’m tired of sitting. Let me show you around the campus.”

    The next sketch, of a domino, evokes the lunch-time game of 42 that Ben and his graduate students played every day outside my office. It reminds me of how close Ben was with his students. His son Brian recalls that, when he attended UT as a structural engineering student, he went to his father’s lab at lunchtime and played 42 with him and his students. He says, “It was never about winning. 42 was about building community. He taught students from all over the world 42 and so much more.”

    Next is a group of faculty members sitting around a conference table at a faculty meeting. Ben never said to younger colleagues “That is a stupid idea” or “We tried that one before and it didn’t work.” He was content to let us find out for ourselves. This is something I have tried to emulate. He did say something at a faculty meeting that I now call Caudle’s First Law. We were debating a course of action that ostensibly violated a departmental rule. Ben said, “Those that make the rules can change the rules.” And they can.

    Next comes a sketch of the National Academy of Engineering logo to remind me that Ben was among the first homegrown members of the PGE Department elected to the NAE. Quite an honor for him and for us.

    The logo also reminds me of his response to a question I asked at his retirement. “Ben, what do you consider your most singular achievement?” He responded, “While I was at Atlantic I was doing very small-scale experiments in (what we now call) micromodels. We watched the progress of an immiscible solvent displacement through a microscope. For certain solvents and certain pressure, the interface just vanished. I think I discovered developed miscibility.” The last sentence is my addition: Ben would never be so immodest as to make such a bold personal claim. Developed miscibility is a central idea behind most of the carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery taking place now. Ben could have said that he was an early developer of scaled model experiments and a pioneer in streamline modeling. The current proponents of streamline modeling were in diapers when he did this.

    Now I see a piece of chalk. It reminds me of the time when I was hustling to the last class day with a notebook, computer, and some books—gotta get it all covered on the last day! (Ben once showed me a student comment from a course instructor survey that said, “Good class but tried to stuff too much s*** in at the end.”) I met Ben coming from class with a single, short piece of chalk (those were the days) and asked him, “How could you review the semester with no books, notes, etc.?” He said, “On the last day I just go in all alone and dare them to stump me with a question.” Such superb self-confidence in his material and his teaching! He was, of course, a gifted teacher, as so many students can attest—he probably taught more than 4000 students during his career.

    Next comes a drawing of a rebuilt computer. When we moved into the “new” old building in 1986, we were all hotly competing for office space, since these had windows. Ben was having none of it. He wanted the larger lab space since he would work on his computer there. Not working on, like running programs; he was literally putting together a computer. In fact, Brian Caudle reports that when he left home in 1974 to attend UT, Ben moved his home office from the basement to his son’s bedroom, where he built his first computer and named it George. George was fully functional by 1976.

    The final picture is of the same two people as in the first figure, this one with the white-haired guy sitting behind the department chair’s desk. Ben says, “I have been thinking about what you said” (I had said that it was unlikely we would get any new positions, given our low enrollment, without a retirement). “So,” he says, “I think I will retire.” This speaks volumes for Ben’s affection for the department and UT; he was still active and did not have to retire.

    Flash forward to a room full of former students at retirement parties in Midland and Austin. The affection of the audience, mostly former students, for Ben was palpable. One considered being in the department, and particularly in Ben’s classes, one of the high points of his life.

    The final sketch is of a lion. It is to remind me that we are in an era of the passing of lions in petroleum engineering. I mourn Ben’s passing and that of the other lions of our era. We and the PGE Department honor Ben by living up to his legacy.

    Ben loved his family even more than he loved his students and colleagues. His beloved wife Teal died in 2003, after 55 happy years together. He is survived by Alan (Nancy), Brian (Christine), four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. One of Brian’s sons, named after his grandfather, is now the second Dr. Ben Hall Caudle, a chemical engineer doing carbon capture research in Japan.

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