Johnathan J. Karakash is one of Lehigh engineering's most revered faculty members. During his service as dean of Lehigh's engineering college from 1966 to 1981, Karakash won an array of honors for modernizing the college and its programs. Before joining the faculty in 1946, he helped engineers at the University of Pennsylvania design the world's first all-electronic computer.
Karakash was perhaps best known as a philosopher of education and a gifted teacher whose devotion to students inspired them to achieve beyond their highest expectations.
Youth and Education
Karakash was born on June 14, 1914--on Flag Day, he often noted, 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.
His appreciation of history--and of the United States--was shaped by his father, a merchant who was kidnapped, held captive for a year and left partially paralyzed by the Bolshevik Army while traveling to Ukraine in 1919. Three decades later, after Karakash had emigrated to the U.S., his father, an admirer of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman, told Karakash he must repay his new homeland for the opportunities it had afforded him.
"You are a citizen of the country that saved the world from tyranny," Karakash often recalled his father telling him. "Serve it."
Sports became Karakash's ticket to America. While a student at Istanbul's Robert College in 1935, he represented Turkey as a javelin thrower in the Balkan Olympics and won a gold medal, qualifying for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But instead of attending the German games, he used his prize money to travel to Duke University, where he had been offered an athletic scholarship.
Karakash earned a B.S. in electrical engineering from Duke in 1937 and an M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania the following year. Before and during World War II, he helped develop radar and other defense equipment for the American military. He also wrote classical music reviews and editorial columns on world affairs for U.S. newspapers and traveled the American heartland to give talks on foreign policy to Rotary Clubs and other organizations.
After the war, Karakash helped a team of engineers at Penn develop ENIAC, the world's first electronic computer. He also collaborated with Hahnemann Medical College physicians in a study of mechanical hearts.
Career at Lehigh
In 1946, answering an ad in the newspaper, Karakash came to Lehigh to take a one-year appointment as assistant professor of electrical engineering. He stayed on, became head of his department in 1956, and then served as dean of the engineering college from 1966 until his retirement in 1981.
As department chair and as dean, Karakash attracted considerable corporate support--often by calling on former students who had taken top positions in industry--and steered the electrical engineering department into the modern electronics age. He helped establish the Sherman Fairchild Center for Solid State Studies in 1976.
"John found the department of electrical engineering strong in traditional power engineering," William C. Hittinger '44, former chair of the board of trustees, said in 1996 when Karakash was featured in the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin. "But he saw the new world of electronics coming. Almost single-handedly and quite rapidly he moved Lehigh in the direction of that new world."
As an educator, Karakash encouraged engineering students to take liberal arts courses and he set the example by showing up at campus poetry readings to recite Victor Hugo and Francois Coppe--in French. In 1976, the Epitome referred to Karakash as a "Renaissance Man."
"He was an outstanding dean among the deans," the late Carey B. Joynt, the Monroe J. Rathbone professor emeritus and former chair of international relations, said in 1996. "I used to joke that he should have been dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He [is] a man of ideas with the widest education you can imagine."
"The Education Philosopher"
After retiring from Lehigh in 1981, Karakash honed his reputation as a philosopher of education. He spent more than a dozen years as a consultant to IBM, helping the company promote in-house and graduate degree programs for employees. He traveled the world to speak on education, lamenting the void in formative, or character, education in America's schools.
In 1992, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools honored Karakash as "Engineer, Scientist, Philosopher and Teacher for all ages for his eloquent and professional message to elementary schools on human formation through commitment to the Constitutions of our Earth and our Nation."
As professor and dean, Karakash had gained fame for keeping late hours to talk with students and sometimes even sleeping overnight on a cot in his office.
As education philosopher, Karakash insisted that all students had potential that could be developed--provided they made the effort to learn and their teachers did not give up on them.
The final outcome to education, he argued in the 1996 Bulletin article, depends on "the innate ability and attitude of the student, and the efforts of professors and advisers to cultivate the former and improve the latter. As a teacher, it's not the bright students I worry about. I know they'll make it. But what about the ones who didn't make it? That torments me. I always wonder what more I could have done."
...Our goal is to produce good people—young men and women who learn to think to the point where thinking is a habit; who have been exposed to, and encouraged to develop and live by, a set of values; who have developed methods and approaches to the intelligent application of knowledge; and, last but not least, who accept the virtue of work as a vehicle of service and the will to work as a self-discipline.– John Karakash , 1981
In the late 1990s, Karakash returned to his first love--history and world affairs--and began writing editorial columns for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. He turned out more than 30 articles, focusing most of them on American foreign policy, particularly the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. His last column, an autobiographical reminiscence, was published on April 10, 2006 by the Call.
In his last years, Karakash made frequent trips to campus, dropping in unannounced to chat with his successors in the engineering dean's office and stopping to discuss foreign policy and university politics with secretaries in Packard Lab and with friends in other university offices.
His witticisms, which someone dubbed "Karakashisms," became renowned. "Education," he said, "should be for those who can grow, not those who can pay." And he warned: "It is a disgrace to try to improve our biological and material lives when our spiritual and cultural lives are declining."
Karakash received an array of honors in his lifetime. He was the first person to win both Lehigh's Robinson Award for outstanding service and its Hillman Award for advancing the interests of the university. He received an outstanding teaching award from the student body, won awards from the professional societies to which he belonged, and was listed in Who's Who in America.
Lehigh also awarded Karakash an honorary doctorate of engineering degree and established a visiting professorship and $1 million student-scholarship endowment in his name. In 1990, the Lehigh Class of 1980 and the Alumni Association gave Karakash the Distinguished Leadership Award.
In 2004, on his 90th birthday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a proclamation that commended Karakash for "demonstrating the highest ideals of citizenship" and for "an exemplary record of service, leadership and achievements."
Karakash was proud of the honors, but his wry sense of humor often goaded him to introduce himself to Lehigh students as "extinguished dean."
He exhibited the same weakness for mischief in June 2004 when the engineering college threw a party in honor of his 90th birthday.
The former dean, by now stooped and hard of hearing, looked out on a crowd of well-wishers, including former colleagues and former students, some of whom were themselves in early retirement.
He appeared tired and a bit confused as he prepared to address the assembly.
But only momentarily.
"When I look around this table," he said, "I see a lot of people whose lives I touched and who have touched me.
"I hope that by my 100th birthday, most of you will have graduated."