Joe Hightower, professor emeritus and Hospitality Apartments leader, dies at 77

Joe Hightower, 77, a Rice professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering, died July 25.

Hightower was a pioneer in catalysis and chemical kinetics and advanced the development of materials that proved essential to the catalytic converters now mandated in all vehicles.

Joe Hightower

Joe Hightower

In a talk given at a retirement dinner for Hightower in 2002, his Rice colleague Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of bioengineering, said, “Without the catalysts that Joe and his colleagues have developed, our gasoline would be much more expensive, many of the products that make our lives easier and more enjoyable would not exist and our air would be much dirtier.”

Zygourakis said this week that Hightower “continued to work tirelessly well past his retirement, making additional and significant contributions to our department, to scientific organizations and to the broader Houston community.”

Hightower’s contributions to society beyond Rice are just as legendary, maybe more. He was a co-founder and, for more than 40 years, the force behind the Hospitality Apartments, a volunteer-run, 46-unit Texas Medical Center facility that provides free housing for families in need, primarily those who come to Houston for medical care.

The project began after Hightower came to Houston to teach at Rice. “I started attending a local church (the Bering Drive Church of Christ), which was fairly new and had several young professionals with small children,” he told Rice News in a 2010 profile. “We had bull sessions occasionally on weekends. The group was half activists and half philosophers.

“I asked the leaders of the church if they had programs we could get involved in, and they said, ‘We want you to come up with some ideas.’ One of the philosophers – in a fit of derision, we think – said, ‘Look, you do-gooders. There’s a medical center here. Why don’t you go find out about needs for food or transportation or housing.’ And housing seemed to click,” he said.

Hightower led a group that bought a former Army barracks with four small apartments south of the medical center and added both land and buildings over the years. The current building opened in 2008 and replaced what had by then become a 42-unit complex on Bertner Avenue.

His wife, Ann Hightower ’80, said that for years, Hightower answered calls to the apartments day and night. “He was basically responsible for the entire day-to-day operation,” she said in the profile. “From Hurricane Alicia to somebody getting mad at the guy above him who’s making too much noise, Joe would have to hop in the car or on his bicycle, go over and fix it.”

As of 2010, Hospitality Apartments had welcomed thousands of families from 49 states and 64 countries.

Hightower was rightly famous for his sourdough bread. He baked the bread at home for years, and every new guest at the apartments was welcomed with a fresh loaf.

For his service, Hightower received the Jefferson Prize for Public Service in Houston in 1982, and the award for Leadership in Volunteerism in Houston in 1992. The city recognized him again when it declared Feb. 15, 2007, as “Joe W. Hightower Day.”

Hightower was born in Morrilton, Ark., earned his bachelor’s degree at Harding University in Arkansas and a doctorate in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. After postdoctoral studies at the Queen’s University in Belfast and the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, he joined Rice in 1967 and became a full professor in 1970.

He served at various times at Rice as a department chair, director of sponsored research, as a member of the University Council and secretary of the faculty. He was a faculty adviser to the Student Chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology on his catalysis work.

In the year of his retirement, Hightower won the C.M and Demaris Hudspeth Award for Student Life and Clubs for his contributions to student life and student organizations at Rice.

Hightower earned the American Chemical Society’s George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry in 1973 and was named a fellow of the society in 2011.

In addition to his wife, Hightower is survived by a daughter, Amy, from a previous marriage.

Information on a memorial service for Hightower will be posted when it becomes available.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.