James Lee Ketelsen
James Lee Ketelsen died on April 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Born on November 14, 1930 in Davenport, Iowa of Ernest H. and Helen Schumann Ketelsen, Jim kept his erect posture, his piercing gaze and his firm handshake through good times and tough challenges. A tall man, Jim was bigger than life in business as well as in retirement. As a businessman, his command of numbers and his memory were legendary. But more remarkable is the unusual dedication that Jim showed to helping people throughout his life.
Jim is preceded in death by his first wife Joan Velde Ketelsen and their son James V. Ketelsen.
He is survived by his wife of 29 years, Kathryn Lloyd Ketelsen, his daughter Lee Ketelsen and her husband Adam Parker, daughter-in-law Catherine Gittings Ketelsen, a granddaughter Naomi Parker, and grandson Jake Parker.
After graduating from Northwestern University in 1952, Jim served as an officer in the United States Navy on the destroyer U.S.S. Hunt in the Pacific during the Korean War. He began his business career as a CPA in the Chicago office of Price Waterhouse. In 1959 he joined J.I. Case Company as Assistant Comptroller, and he rose to president at the young age of 36. He remained at the head of Case until it was acquired by Tenneco, where he was tapped to be CEO and Chairman at the age of 47, and he served in that capacity for 13 years from to 1978-1992. Most Texans think of this global conglomerate as an oil company, but Jim managed this host of multi-industry businesses including ship building, natural gas pipelines, chemicals, agriculture and land management, and packaging.
During his tenure at Tenneco, Jim was among the first corporate leaders in the nation to link business profitability and employee health. Jim built a state of the art fitness center for employees. "In Tenneco's Texas sized gym which occupies 25,000 square feet, there are basketball and racquetball courts, a workout area, a glass-enclosed running track…,all free of charge to employees," the New York Times wrote March 18, 1990. Jim's focus on fitness was inspired by research after his double bypass surgery in 1979, and it did much to enhance Tenneco's reputation as a caring company.
Jim's commitment to promoting his employees' physical fitness and his style of leading by example led him to start the Houston Tenneco Marathon, which lives on today under another sponsorship. For years Jim, an accomplished runner, began the Marathon himself.
Always generous with his time, Jim led Tenneco's recognized program of volunteerism, giving paid time off to employees to pursue those interests. He was a founding board member of Central Houston, a regent of the University of Houston System and a trustee of Northwestern University. In addition, Jim very much enjoyed serving as an active member on outside boards, namely J.P. Morgan & Company of New York where he was chairman of the Audit Committee for 24 years.
Jim's dedication to and love for our city is also evident on every walk past the cascading waterfalls, distinctive lighting, gazebo and promenade of Sesquicentennial Park. Jim helped launch this project which became the seminal effort in the Buffalo Bayou beautification work. Jim was one of a small group of Houstonians who worked hard to raise the funds to build the Wortham Theater in the 1980's during the worst recession in the city's history. After the stunning facility was completed, he made it a priority to bring the nearby park up to standard.
Jim knew what a sacrifice his family had made to send him to college and recognized the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged students. After retirement, he had time for more extensive volunteer work. During the flight home from President George H. W. Bush's inauguration, inspired by the famous Thousand Points of Light speech, Jim and his wife Kathryn discussed how they could improve what Jim had started in Davis High School in Houston's Near North Side while he headed Tenneco. That discussion led to the formation of the non-profit Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams). Understanding that work had to begin earlier than high school, Jim's clear and practical vision saw the workforce challenges our city and country would face if we turned away from the enormous drop-out problem. This inspired his tireless efforts on behalf of those students for the rest of his life. The motto he chose for Project GRAD was "Whatever it takes!"
Always humble, Jim wasn't one to define himself in terms of his many accomplishments or plaques on the wall. While his laudable successes may not be on display in his office, they are visible at numerous sites around the city of Houston. Most significantly, Jim lives on through the successes of the numerous people whom he mentored and students he encouraged. Today Project GRAD has sent over 7500 students to college, inspired countless others to go, and helped an untold number to get a high school diploma.
He will be missed not only by his family and friends but by former students of James L. Ketelsen Elementary who for years when he would visit would come running to him and grab his legs, calling out to him, "Mr. K. Mr. K. Thanks for coming."
Always the optimist, Jim never stopped believing that if you just kept working at something, you could make the world better.
Jim was right. It can take just one person to make a difference.
The family wishes to thank Taavi Mark, Tina Rose and Ida Tyson for their long and caring service.
A memorial service celebrating his life will be held at Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas Avenue, in Houston on Friday, May 5, 2017 at two o'clock in the afternoon with a reception following in Saunders Hall at the church.
Jim has requested those wishing to make memorial contributions please do so to the DREAM Scholarship Fund, Project GRAD 3000 Richmond Ave., Suite 400, Houston, Texas 77098.
Published by Houston Chronicle from Apr. 30 to May 3, 2017.