John Karakash blows out the candles on his birthday cake.
John Karakash, dean emeritus of the engineering college, is a bit stooped and hard of hearing as he approaches his 25th year of formal retirement.
But he has lost none of the wit, restless curiosity or devotion to students that have endeared him to Lehigh for almost six decades.
On June 21, at a lunch in honor of his 90th birthday, Karakash looked out on a crowd of well-wishers, including former colleagues and former students – some of them already in early retirement, and said:
“When I look around this table, I see a lot people whose lives I touched and who have touched me.
“I hope that by my 100th birthday, most of you will have graduated.”
Serving his country
John J. Karakash was born on June 14, 1914 – on Flag Day, he often notes, in the country that would adopt him a quarter-century later – to Greek parents in Istanbul, Turkey.
Educated in French schools, he grew up speaking three languages and had a front-row seat to some of the events that shaped the 20th century – the bitter aftermath of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the rise of modern Turkey from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
Karakash moved to the United States in his early 20s and completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Duke University and a master’s degree in the same field from the University of Pennsylvania. He helped create the world’s first computer at Penn, and he came to Lehigh in 1946 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering, rising to become head of his department, then dean of the engineering college from 1966 until his retirement in 1980.
All along, world affairs and 20th-century history have consumed Karakash. Even before his arrival at Lehigh, he had written editorial columns for some of America’s major metropolitan newspapers and had traveled the American heartland to lecture on foreign affairs.
“After World War II,” Karakash frequently recalls, “my father told me this: ‘You have become a citizen of the country [America] that saved the world. Serve it.’”
In the past six or seven years, Karakash has written more than 30 op-ed columns for The Morning Call
in Allentown, Pa. The most recent, which discussed the war in Iraq, was published on the day of his 90th birthday party.
”The highest ideals of citizenship
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives recognized Karakash’s accomplishments by approving a proclamation that commended the former dean for “demonstrating the highest ideals of citizenship” and for “an exemplary record of service, leadership and achievements.”
The proclamation noted the formal awards Karakash has received from Lehigh, including an honorary doctorate of engineering degree, a visiting professorship and a $1 million student-scholarship endowment established in his name, and a Distinguished Leadership Award given to Karakash in 1990 by the Lehigh Class of 1980 and the Lehigh University Alumni Association.
Former colleagues who attended his 90th birthday party, sponsored by the engineering college at the Bridgeworks Restaurant, remembered the lengths to which Karakash went to help students as well as fellow professors and deans.
“I met John when I was a freshman,” said Donald Talhelm, retired professor and former associate chairman of electrical engineering. “I can’t understand why he would say now that he has trouble sleeping. When I was a graduate student at Lehigh, I lived at the corner of Vine Street and Packer Avenue. Many nights, at 2 or 3 a.m., I would look out my window down to the street and see John either going to Lehigh or walking home from Lehigh.
“A lot of Lehigh students owe John Karakash a debt of gratitude. He helped them out even when they didn’t realize it.”
Donald Bolle, who succeeded Karakash as engineering dean, recalled meeting Karakash a quarter-century ago when he came to Lehigh to interview for the deanship.
“I was getting on the plane to go home after my first interview for the job,” said Bolle, who is now chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering, “when a stewardess came running onto the plane asking, ‘Is Dr. Bolle here? There’s a phone call for you.’
“That was back before the days of cell phones,” said Bolle. “I had to walk off the plane and back into the terminal to take the phone call. It was John on the other end of the line. He just wanted to call and wish me bon voyage. He was able to hold the plane; that shows what kind of influence he had in the community.”