Chen-yu Yen, whose life was an immigrant success story and who dedicated his career as an environmental engineer to preserving the natural world, died Aug. 21 in Cancun, Mexico, after experiencing a medical emergency while snorkeling.
The Jacksonville resident was 66.
Dr. Yen had been hospitalized twice in January for bleeding ulcers, said his son, May Jim Yen, a physician who goes by his middle name.
“After his hospitalizations, we were worried about my father and didn’t want him venturing out,” Jim Yen said. “But my father was not the kind of person to stay at home and wait to get sick. He had this attitude that life was short.
“He didn’t know how much time he had and he wanted to live life to the fullest,” he said.
Dr. Yen retired recently as director and senior vice president of Gannett Fleming Sustainable Ventures Corp., where he oversaw cleanup of hazardous wastes dumped at Superfund sites.
“As a little kid, I didn’t really understand what my dad did,” his daughter, Angie Sue Yen said. “When the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’ came out, my dad got so excited. ‘That’s what I do!” he said. He was very, very invested in finding out the true stories of chemical dumping or waste management that was improperly handled.”
Dr. Yen was born in Taiwan in 1951. He studied chemistry at the National Taiwan University and obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1975.
While at the university he joined the hiking club, and one day saw a pretty young biology student who, like him, was wearing a pink sweater. He asked her on a date. The couple later married and came to the U.S. in 1975, when he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Today Dr. Yen’s widow, Ray-Whay Chiu Yen, works as a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“My parents came over with nothing,” Jim Yen said. “He went to school on a scholarship and they had problems with the language. Friends had to teach them to drive a car. After I was born in 1979, they were on the WIC [Women, Infants and Children] program that provided them with coupons to buy nutritious food they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. He always said they wouldn’t have made it here if they hadn’t been helped by others.”
Dr. Yen received a master’s degree in chemistry in 1977 and a doctorate in environmental sciences and engineering in 1983 from the North Carolina university. The family then moved to Baltimore and Dr. Yen completed post-doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1985.
“My parents were very hardworking. They saved up money from his engineering job, invested it in the stock market and became self-made millionaires,” Jim Yen said. “My father was very grateful and really loved this country. He had an optimistic faith in the power of paying it forward that I really admire.”
“They really lived the American dream,” he said.
Among other philanthropic donations, the couple established a graduate fellowship at the University of North Carolina in environmental science. They funded a lecture program at Hopkins in memory of Dr. Yen’s mentor, the late Charles O’Melia.
Dr. Yen also volunteered as a board member and treasurer for the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center, the largest Chinese American nonprofit in the Washington metropolitan area.
Dr. Yen was passionate about the natural world in a physical and concrete way. Both Jim and Angie Yen recalled how they rolled their eyes as teens when hauled along on family vacations to visit yet another botanical garden or national park. Dr. Yen bought a telescope — supposedly for his children but really for himself, they said — and enthusiastically used it to explore the constellations.
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“He had this really positive energy and was almost childlike at heart,” Jim Yen said. “He never lost his sense of wonder.”
An avid gardener, Dr. Yen built a greenhouse on the family’s one-and-a-half-acre property in Jacksonville and filled it with orchids. The fussier and more demanding these delicate beauties were, the happier he was.
“I do not have a green thumb, but he’d take me along when he planted trees and put in tulip bulbs,” Angie Yen said. “I didn’t really appreciate it when I was younger, but what he taught me about nurturing something and having the patience to watch it grow has had a huge influence on my life.”