December 11, 2007

Dr. Daniel A. Okun

Dr. Daniel A. Okun

Daniel A. Okun , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan professor of environmental engineering, died Monday, December 10, 2007. He was 90.

Okun was hailed worldwide for his groundbreaking work in identifying pristine water sources (including Chapel Hill’s Cane Creek Reservoir), water management, water supply, pollution control, water reclamation and reuse, and watershed protection issues.

In 2006, he received lifetime achievement awards from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) in Orange County, N.C., the national Environmental and Water Resources Institute and the International Water Association.

During his career, Okun worked in 89 countries and consulted with municipal and legislative planning committees throughout the United States. Among professor Okun’s many contributions, he helped design a water treatment plant in Bangkok, Thailand; establish a graduate program in sanitary engineering in Lima, Peru; and studied water supply and pollution control in China for the World Bank. At home in Chapel Hill, he led the campaign to build Cane Creek Dam and Reservoir in the 1980s to ensure the most pristine water source possible for Chapel Hill and the UNC campus.

“Dan Okun cared deeply about his school, his community, his state and his world,” said UNC School of Public Health Dean Barbara K. Rimer. “And he turned that commitment into action, whether through water projects or social action. Few professors have influenced more students, more professionals, or more policy decisions around the world than Dr. Okun. His work has influenced international policy-making for organizations like the World Bank, United Nations and the World Health Organization. There is nowhere I go that people don’t talk about Dan with awe. Though he was retired, he was often at the School, talking to students and faculty colleagues. Dan was a model citizen/professor, and I am so glad to have known him.”

Okun began his career at UNC in 1952 and served as chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering from 1955 to 1973. During his time as chair, the department grew from three to 25 faculty members. Although Dr. Okun retired from teaching in 1982, he remained actively involved in the profession through writing, lecturing and consulting, until his death.

“Dan influenced generations of environmental engineers and public health professionals with his clear thinking and equal clarity of purpose,” said Mike Aitken, PhD, chair of the School of Public Health’s environmental sciences and engineering department. “His life’s work on water supply and, more recently, on water reuse earned him an international reputation that few attain. His humanity equaled his professional stature — from his concern for safe drinking water in developing countries, to his engagement in local social issues, to his model service as an academic citizen at this University.”

Okun was the first engineer from North Carolina elected to the National Academy of Engineering and later to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. He chaired the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council from 1991 to 1994. In August 1999, Engineering News-Record, in celebration of 125 years of publishing, honored him as one of the top 125 engineers who “singularly and collectively helped shape this nation and the world.”

Philip Singer, PhD, currently holds the Daniel A. Okun Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering, a scholarship established in 1999 by the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering with donations from former students, colleagues and friends.

“Dan was a pioneer who had a profound influence on scientific, technical, and policy advancements in the field of environmental sciences and engineering,” Singer said. “An engineer’s engineer, he cast a giant shadow on the broad field of water supply and water resources management. While he will be greatly missed by the many students, faculty and professionals with whom he worked at home and abroad, his legacy will live on among all engineers and scientists dealing with issues of water and health.”

Okun established a scholarship, awarded annually to an environmental sciences and engineering student. He was also a strong supporter of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

Okun celebrated his 90th birthday in June with a party at the Carol Woods Retirement Center, where he lived. More than 220 people came to offer warm wishes and celebrate the life of their friend and colleague.

“I believe Dan’s greatest legacy will be this Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering,” Aitken said. “He transformed it from a traditional program in sanitary engineering to the multidisciplinary department we are today, at a time when this was unheard of. He was truly a man of vision who pushed us to excel even through this last year of his life. We will miss his wisdom; we will miss him.”

A memorial service was held on Friday, December 21, at 2:00 pm in the auditorium of Carol Woods Retirement Center, 750 Weaver Dairy Rd., Chapel Hill.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations may be made in his memory to the Dan Okun Scholarship Fund in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Credit card donations may be made online at (Under Gift Designation, select Other, and enter Dan Okun Scholarship Fund.)

Checks should be made to the Public Health Foundation and should indicate the name of the scholarship. The mailing address is UNC School of Public Health, Campus Box 7407, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-7407.

School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or